Fire on the Maine Landscape

On December 22, 2020, CREA and BTLT hosted a panel of experts on the topic of the role fire plays on the Maine landscape. You can watch the presentation and read a summary below.

James Eric Francis Sr. of the Penobscot Nation opened on a philosophical note, wondering what fire is – this thing that has evolved with and played such a role in human history.  He went on to discuss what his research revealed about indigenous use of fire in Maine. He 

James noted that the first explorers to North America learned that Natives burned the landscape twice/year. These burns were limited to the ground and did not extend to the canopy. The purpose was to facilitate travel and stimulate post-fire growth that attracted deer for hunting.

While this style of burning was common in southern New England, Maine’s conifer-dominant boreal forest was less conducive to regular burning. However, James’ research revealed that burning was done in Maine, for purposes of clearing village sites, eradicating vermin, and promoting agriculture (such as blueberries).

Some clues reside in the language. For example, the Penobscot word for ‘field’ contains the word for ‘fire,’ reflecting the fact that fields are not generally part of the Maine landscape in the absence of human-created fire.

Other evidence of indigenous use of fire has been found in core samples taken from ponds and lakes adjacent to blueberry barrens such as Pineo Ridge. Core samples dating back millennia reveal pollen from plants that thrive in post-fire conditions.

James closed by highlighting the irony that fire – such an important tool for humans worldwide – is the root cause of global warming today. For additional information on indigenous use of fire, see James’ paper, Burnt Harvest: Penobscot People and Fire.

Aliesha Black of the Maine Forest Service reviewed the causes of fire – human, machine-caused (railroads, power lines), lightning, and unknown. Lightning causes only a small fraction of fires every year.

Maine doesn’t often have the conditions that cause the crowning fires (fires that spread to the crowns of trees) we’ve seen out west in recent years. Crowning fires require a particular combination of fuels, topography, and wind.

Aliesha noted the Great Fires of 1947 in Maine which were very destructive. (Watch a short video about these here.) She noted that much has changed to prevent these types of fires, including: air support for fire control, better communications, mutual aid agreements, training, and different forestry practices (fewer slash piles).

Recent decades have seen a resurgence in prescribed burning for a variety of purposes, including vista protection, wildlife habitat, invasive species/tick reduction, and fuel reduction.

She described how a prescribed burn is conducted and all the measures used to keep it controlled. She closed with the following information resources for those interested in learning more:

Nancy Sferra of The Nature Conservancy reported that TNC has been use prescribed fire in Maine since 1990. She offered several examples, starting with their Waterboro Barrens property. Sandy, low-nutrient sites like this are rejuvenated by fire, which provides a surge of nutrients to the system.

The natural fire cycle of this community is every 50-60 years. Primary plants are scrub oak, grey birch and pitch pine – which can re-sprout from the base and has epicormic buds, making it very tolerant of fire.

One of the reasons TNC burns this site is for the animals supported by the plant community, including whippoorwill, nighthawk, towhee, rare butterflies and moths and other insects.

The Nature Conservancy also burns properties in Kennebunk and Wells to maintain sandplain grassland communities there. They’ve found evidence that these areas were burned by the Native peoples, likely to promote blueberry growth. Nancy referred to the sandplain grasslands as ‘anthropogenic’ sites because they would disappear in the absence of (human-created) fire (replaced by forest).

The sandplain grassland communities are home to the rare black racer snake, important to maintain so they are present to move north as climate change progresses. They are also host to the largest population of blazing star (Liatris spicata) which supports a number of insects. TNC burns these communities on a 4-5 year rotation, burning 1/4 of the area every year.

Nancy closed by covering some of the ways climate change is changing fire in Maine, such as: longer fire seasons; more drought; precipitation concentrated in larger storms, with less rainfall infiltration into the ground; more treefall in storms; and more pests and pathogens resulting in more fuel on the ground.