“Hey Mike, do you copy?”
“Yeah, Joe, go ahead.”
“We need to blade this line, I don’t think it is going to hold.”
The engine of the fire plow unit started up immediately and Mike Gochenour came over the rise in the dozer, the blade cutting deep into the rich soil and turning it over, burying all flammable vegetative matter that might catch fire and jump the safety line. We had mowed the thick stand of Indian Grass and Joe Lehnen, our area forester and fire chief for the day, had used a super-sized leaf blower from the Virginia Department of Forestry to clear the debris from the path, blowing all the loose material back into the burn area.
However, the wind was kicking up, encouraging the flames to lick across the ground quickly, catching hold of any little bits of grass and spread the fire to the area we did not want burned.
“Good thing this wasn’t pure switchgrass,” said Joe. “It would be really hot then.”
Joe asked if I could assist by lighting a line of fire 20 feet parallel to his line. With eagerness I said yes (it is always fun to watch stuff burn – much more to make it burn!). He instructed me to touch the end of the torch to the flames, and, as expected, the accelerant mixture of 60% diesel/40% gas caused the end of the torch to erupt in a flame.
“Now just drip the fire along the ground as you walk.” Joe instructed.
Looking back, the fire was reaching about 20 feet in the air as the two lines joined, rushing through the field quickly. I walked over the rough ground, heading towards Kauffmans Mill Road, stepping around boxelder and ailanthus saplings.
At one point, a small bit of airborn flame dropped down behind the line and a completely separate blaze lept up. Joe called for Mike again and the plow made a quick pass 12 feet behind the flames. A couple of the volunteers were secretly delighted at the unexpected combustion and were quietly hoping the wind might interject a bit more unplanned flammability in the day.
This controlled burn is part of the ongoing research at the White House Farm Foundation. We plan to burn an additional 10 acres of the native warm season grasses in the late spring in order to compare the vegetative regeneration rates between the winter and spring burns. We are also gathering information on the effect of burns to the invasive plant species, the changes of organic matter and trace elements in the soil (at depths of 3″ and 6″) and studying the effects on wildlife.
The Virginia Department of Forestry conducts these controlled burns for a fee on landowners properties for the purposes of enhancing wildlife or forest management. Their service area covers Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Frederick, Fauquier counties and several other counties in the Shenandoah Valley.
Many thanks to Joe Lehnen, Mike Gochenour and Robbie Bly from the VA Dept. of Forestry, Shawn Bradley, farm manager and volunteers Jessie Judy, James Vaughn and Maria Van Dyke.
Written by Chris Anderson, Director White House Farm Foundation