From the Ashes — Virginia’s New Strategies for Wildfire Resilience and Recovery

Shenandoah National Park Forest with trail.

Old strategies are new again, prescribed burns to the rescue. (Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash)

by | Apr 24, 2024

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As the 2024 spring wildfire season approaches its end in Virginia, the state has confronted a severe increase in fire activity. Nearly 20,000 acres have been consumed by wildfires, primarily affecting the western and central regions, a figure that doubles the decade’s average. The loss of vegetation and wildlife habitats is evident, yet state and federal officials highlight the ecological benefits of these fires, which are traditionally used as a resource management tool.

Role of Controlled Burns in Ecosystem Management

Michael Downey, assistant director for wildfire mitigation and prevention at the Virginia Department of Forestry, emphasizes the importance of maintaining fires within controlled settings. Implementing prescribed burns by various state and federal agencies, such as the Department of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service, is a testament to the structured use of fire to effectively manage and restore the ecosystem.

Wildfires, while often seen as devastating events, also play a complex role in shaping an ecological landscape. At the foundational level, the impact of fires can permeate deeply into the soil, influencing its properties and, consequently, the broader ecosystem. Depending on the intensity and duration of a fire, the soil can become water-repellent, increasing the risk of erosion and affecting water quality as sediments are more likely to enter waterways. This was notably observed following the significant wildfires of 2016 when researchers at Virginia Tech reported water repellency in severely burned areas at rates significantly higher than in unaffected zones. Ryan D. Stewart, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, noted that local fire severity in Virginia, though generally not as extreme as in the Western United States, can still be quite severe. These conditions can lead to the consumption of upper soil layers and the creation of a subsurface layer that resists re-wetting, complicating recovery efforts.

Expanded Flora and Fauna Impacts of Wildfires in Virginia

Michael Puckett and Lane Gibbons, fire management specialists, liken forest management to financial investment. They advocate for a diversified approach where a variety of tree heights and ages promotes richer biodiversity. Post-fire environments, where taller trees are cleared, allow sunlight to nourish lower-level vegetation, fostering a diverse ecosystem. This diversity is crucial for the forest’s resilience, allowing it to readily recover from and adapt to future fires. Over time, such practices have led to the emergence of robust oak populations in fire-prone areas, contrasting with less fire-resistant species like maple pines, which thrive in cooler, more moist conditions.

The animals inhabiting these forests also face and adapt to the challenges posed by wildfires. Larger species, such as turkeys and squirrels, may be temporarily displaced but often return quickly due to Virginia’s generally humid forests, which facilitate faster ecological recovery compared to drier regions. The Wildlife Center of Virginia has cared for wildlife affected by smoke, highlighting the immediate impact of fires on fauna. Amphibious creatures, like box turtles, are particularly vulnerable due to their slower movement and dependency on the underbrush for habitat, which is often destroyed in fires. However, these species’ adaptive behaviors and the quick return of flora post-fire help in quicker habitat restoration.

Invasive species like the Spongy Moth also contribute to this ecological narrative. These pests primarily target oaks, thinning the forest canopy and inadvertently promoting biodiversity by allowing other plant species to flourish. Their management, however, remains a priority to maintain the health of fire-resilient oak trees, which are invaluable for their carbon-capturing abilities and overall climate benefits.

Wildlife Adaptations and Human Influence

The influence of human activities on wildfire occurrences is significant, with Michael Downey noting that 80 to 90% of fires result from human causes. Developments in rural areas like Page County, which have seen population increases, often lead to more significant wildlife conflicts and exacerbate fire risks. Legislative actions by Virginia, under directives from Governor Glenn Youngkin, aim to integrate wildlife corridor protections in forestry management plans, addressing both environmental and infrastructural vulnerabilities.

Proactive Measures for Future Fire Seasons

As Virginia continues to refine its wildfire management strategies, the emphasis is on creating an ecological balance that leverages the natural benefits of wildfires while minimizing their risks. By understanding and managing the intricate relationships between fire intensities, soil properties, plant resilience, and animal adaptations, Virginia aims to foster a landscape that is not only resilient but also thriving—a testament to the state’s commitment to both conservation and proactive environmental management.

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