Managing a Meadow with Prescribed Fire

Recently, New Jersey Audubon’s stewardship staff partnered with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service to conduct a prescribed burn at the Center for Research and Education in Goshen. This burn is part of a management plan to maintain one acre of native meadow and scrub-shrub habitat that provides critical resources for a number of birds, native pollinators, and other wildlife, including eastern box turtles and North American river otters, which visit from the adjacent marshland.

In Southern New Jersey, fires occurred with some regularity before European settlement and well into the nineteenth century, whether sparked by lightning; set by Native Americans as a management tool; or started accidentally as a result of the regionally important iron, glass, and charcoal industries. As the population and industries changed, fire occurrences became less frequent, and as development increased and fire suppression tools improved, fire suppression efforts became stronger and more successful. Throughout most of the twentieth century, suppression was the dominant policy relating to forest fires. 

In recent decades, however, planned fires, or prescribed fires, have been recognized as a beneficial tool to reduce fuel loads in the forest and to reduce the danger to human life and property caused by wildfires. From October through March, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service works to burn parcels of land throughout the state to reduce the fuel load on the ground. Leaf litter and debris can serve as the perfect kindling leading up to a more intense blaze, particularly during the warmer and drier summer months. By periodically burning off this material in a controlled setting, prescribed fire protects against more intense fires and allows personnel to more easily control any wildfires that may occur.

In addition to contributing to public safety, there are several ecological benefits of prescribed fire that improve habitat for plants and wildlife. One of the biggest benefits prescribed fire can have to an ecosystem is its ability to set back natural succession. As the years pass, woody vegetation begins to grow up in a meadow or grassland, altering the structure of the habitat. Managers can use a prescribed burn to help maintain a meadow and allow it to continue supporting the unique species that require meadow habitat. This young habitat is rapidly shrinking in New Jersey, as the forests throughout the state are mostly middle-aged and grassland habitats tend to be easy targets for development. Prescribed burning allows for the regeneration of plants by opening up areas to more sunlight, naturally fertilizing the soil, and helping seeds to come out of dormancy. 

Careful consideration and thought go into the timing of any prescribed burn, as favorable weather conditions are necessary for the success and safety of an activity like this. Temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and wind direction are all important factors to consider before beginning a prescribed burn. To assess how a fire will burn and ensure the safety of others, fire wardens must be aware of each condition by communicating with weather stations and several fire towers stationed throughout the southern region. 

This is the second time the CRE has been burned since 2014, and we anticipate using fire here every few years. As the season progresses we expect to see great regeneration of our native warm season grasses and wildflowers, as well as an abundance of wildlife on the property.






 Written by Brittany Dobrzynski and Jean Lynch

Photographs by Don Freiday