Land management: prescribed burning

It’s the burning season again in the Pine Barrens! While that might sound frightening, it just means it’s time to start doing some needed forest maintenance via prescribed burning.

Per the New Jersey Forest Fire Service:

The primary purpose of prescribed burning in New Jersey is to reduce the hazardous accumulations of forest fuels. This aids in the prevention of wildfires, reduces the intensity of the fires, and also provides a foundation for safer, more effective fire suppression and protection operations.

Pine Island has been a long-time proponent of this method and works closely with the fire service and our forester when it comes to this crucial method of forest maintenance. “Pine Island has a very long history of using prescribed burns to protect life and property on their land as well as the surrounding area,” says Bob Williams of Pine Creek Forestry. “In addition, it is used to sustain or enhance the overall ecological health of their forest. Fire is a critical component of sustaining this forest and used often in the farm’s forest management program. These forests need fire; it is as essential as rain or sunshine to the life of the forest. Native Americans used fire to sustain this forest as well as most forests across North America for millennia, and many plants and animals need fire to provide critical habitat components in their lives.” He understands the concern, but reassures people that all is well: “Weather permitting, people will see many smoke columns rising from the pinelands area in the coming weeks with no cause for alarm.”

With constant communication, our motivated team, and the able assistance of neighboring growers and fire experts, Pine Island is more than ready to keep up the the constant endeavor of caring for the place where we live, work, and grow!

Mild weather!

An unseasonably mild February means our team is able to focus very easily on midwinter projects such as sanding and prescribed burning.

“We burned roughly 900 acres last week with a 5 or 6 man crew, and then Gerard and I finished two small blocks yesterday, since we had the opportunity,” says manager of operations Matt Giberson. “It’s been a challenge because the weather’s been so dry. For a newbie it’s a little stressful sometimes, especially when we’re trying not to burn certain blocks, which usually means having to burn around some trees. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle.”

It’s also important to make sure everyone’s communicating and everyone’s doing the right thing. “We all had radios, and we all went over the plan prior to burning,” Matt says. “We discussed our targets, we all looked over the maps. Friday we did 500 acres with 6 guys; it was a big day. Monday we had a crew of 5 and it was a bit more of a challenge due to the dry weather; we had to be careful to do things slow.” But the end is in sight! There are only about 100 acres to go and then the team will have hit our target for the year, and then Matt and Bill will discuss next year’s plan and pinpoint some areas that haven’t been touched in a long time.

“The real key is communicating with Shawn and Sammy and Bill Hamilton,” Matt says. “It’s great having such a good working relationship with those guys. They’ve been busy, too; this weather is highly unusual for this time of year and they’ll also field a lot of calls from people driving by when we’re burning. Which is understandable! But since they’re so busy, it means they’re around if anything goes wrong. So far our only mishap has been the back of one of our wooden gates. 900 acres, one gate. Not too shabby.”

While all of this is going on, Matt Stiles has been in charge of finishing up the annual sanding operation. “We ran 400 machine loads of sand yesterday, making it our third best day this year,” Matt Giberson says. “This kind of weather in mid-February makes things easier; sand goes through more smoothly and the guys are happy out there in their shirt sleeves. Everyone’s in a better mood, it’s easier to get the work done, it’s easier on equipment, and we were able to get a lot done with a short crew.”

Prescribed burning

It’s the burning season again in the Pine Barrens! While that might sound frightening, it just means it’s time to start doing some needed forest maintenance via prescribed burning.

Per the New Jersey Forest Fire Service:

The primary purpose of prescribed burning in New Jersey is to reduce the hazardous accumulations of forest fuels. This aids in the prevention of wildfires, reduces the intensity of the fires, and also provides a foundation for safer, more effective fire suppression and protection operations.

Pine Island has been a long-time proponent of this method and works closely with the fire service and our forester when it comes to this crucial method of forest maintenance. “Pine Island has a very long history of using prescribed burns to protect life and property on their land as well as the surrounding area,” says Bob Williams of Pine Creek Forestry. “In addition, it is used to sustain or enhance the overall ecological health of their forest. Fire is a critical component of sustaining this forest and used often in the farm’s forest management program. These forests need fire; it is as essential as rain or sunshine to the life of the forest. Native Americans used fire to sustain this forest as well as most forests across North America for millennia, and many plants and animals need fire to provide critical habitat components in their lives.” He understands the concern, but reassures people that all is well: “Weather permitting, people will see many smoke columns rising from the pinelands area in the coming weeks with no cause for alarm.”

Pine Island team members also recently attended a meeting similar to last year to brush up on the application process and meet some new Fire Service employees. “I went with Matt Stiles, Gerardo Ortiz, and Tim Bourgeois,” says Manager of Operations Matt Giberson. “It was good to meet not just the growers who are involved with burns, but the larger area landowners as well. They’re not necessarily farmers, but have big parcels of land in the area and are just as involved. There are some new forms they walked us through, and we were able to go over the process and discuss what we liked, what we didn’t, how we can make changes that work.” The team was also able to meet Bill Hamilton, who is taking over Shawn Judy’s section. “He’s a great guy,” Matt says. “When things get a little less busy for him, he wants to come to the farm and see what we do and why we do it. I thought that was cool. The entire meeting went really well and we were really able to get a good feel for what everyone needs from each other.”

Our team and the Fire Service discussed our targets for this year as well. “We decide what needs to get done or our end, but they’ll give us ideas and suggestions,” Matt says. “Which is very helpful if it’s a tricky spot with a lot of fuel. I’m new to this and a lot of these guys are new to it, too, so it’s good to have the knowledge and experience to back us up!” Our team is still working on their target acreage, but has already gotten started. “We’ve done about 70 to 100 acres so far,” Matt says. “That’s only one day with a four-man team, though, and we’re prepping the ground right now for the next stage.”

With constant communication, our motivated team, and the able assistance of neighboring growers and fire experts, Pine Island is more than ready to keep up the the constant endeavor of caring for the place where we live, work, and grow!

Fire follow-up!

Last week, Pine Island team members attended a class with some of the Fire Service’s finest! This week, a couple of them followed up with a little hands-on experience.

“Shawn [Judy] called me Saturday and said that if the weather looked good, they were going to burn Sunday,” says Matt Giberson. He and Louis Cantafio met up with the team around 10 the next morning, to start prep. “We set everything up to see which direction the wind was blowing, then we brought out maps, discussed the best approach, then did some wrangling over humidity and some other details. Tommy [Gerber] is the guy everyone kind of looks to as the final say for a lot of this, and he advised us to wait a bit.” Then Matt went for a ride around the 60 acre targeted area, where the team explained in detail what they were doing, what the trucks would be doing, who was positioned where, and the reasoning behind their decisions.

“I got to light the baseline of the fire!” says Matt. “One guy went one direction, I went another, and the guys told me when to stop and check how things were going and when to start walking again. I had to go all the way out to a certain point to form the baseline. It was interesting; the wind was blowing against my baseline and bringing the fire really slowly into the 60 acre block. While that was going on, Tommy was putting strips in to make acreage smaller and smaller.” Some of the results were especially surprising. “That piece hasn’t been burnt in sixty years, they told me. It was a lot more intense than I thought it would be, especially when I heard the roar. They told me it would happen, but you really have to see it to understand! I could hear the fire go, I saw the flames go up. It was really cool!”

Louis Cantafio was also helpful, explaining how to safely transport the equipment. Matt also learned all the problems to look for, such as how to spot fires outside of the targeted block. “Embers can fall out where you don’t want them. This is really where constant communication helps; talking about wind direction, how the fire is burning, all that.” He also learned how fast things can move! “I started walking the left flank while it was burning really slowly…then I started making the turn and Shawn told me to start running in order to bring the flank in and meet the fire as it was coming towards me.” If this is confusing to you, don’t worry: Matt drew a picture in the sand afterward to make absolutely sure he understood what he was doing.

He loved every minute of it, too. “Burning stuff on a Sunday is a good time!” he says. (Sammy Moore concurs: “Matt was having a lot of fun out there,” he says.) “It was amazing to me how quickly it burnt, and how bad the situation can get if you’re not prepared. But now I understand. I learned a lot sitting in class last week, but this kind of thing really is hands-on.”

*Photos courtesy of Matt Giberson.

FIRE!

This week, in our perpetual quest to do everything we do better every day, Pine Island Cranberry held a class with local members of New Jersey Forest Fire Service. Mike Haines, Matt Giberson, Steve Manning, Matt Stiles, Jeremy Fenstermaker, and Tim Bourgeois met Wednesday night with Shawn Judy, Sam Moore III, and Tom Gerber to learn a little more about the history behind prescribed burning in the Pine Barrens as well as some methods and safety awareness.

All of the participants came away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the work involved. “It was really cool to learn about,” says Mike Haines. “Once you start working here [at Pine Island], you see how much actually goes into growing cranberries, and this was the same principle. Shawn and Sammy and Tommy really know their stuff. We learned a lot of the technical stuff as well as a lot of the history. Ultimately the idea is for us to start a regular program here.” Pine Island and other growers have always used prescribed burning as a tool for both forest and crop management, but now we’re trying to get a little bit ahead of the curve, so we brought in the experts to teach our team how to be safe, how to decide on proper timing, and how to recognize the various effects of changes in weather conditions.

Shawn, Sam, and Tom also stressed the importance of communication. “You need to have situational awareness,” says Matt Stiles. “But Shawn also emphasized their reliance on area growers because of their familiarity with the land.” Matt Giberson agrees: “The communication factor there is incalculable. It helps us too; when it comes time to set up a burn we can get out an aerial map and go over everything with those guys to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

The next step is getting some hands-on experience! “We obviously weren’t able to go out and practice,” says Tim Bourgeois. “But we were able to learn how to use the drop torch, and got a close-up tour of the truck and all of the necessary tools and equipment. And we’re going to be able to start riding along in the next couple of weeks to really get some personal experience.” The hands-on knowledge will be highly valuable; as Matt Giberson says, “You can only talk so much about it; you have to do it to understand how it actually works. I can’t read a book and think I can do it tomorrow!”

All of the team members in attendance were especially intrigued by the history aspect. “I didn’t know it was growers who first started it, because they had learned the hard way that cranberry vines are very flammable,” says Matt Giberson. Tim was also impressed with the instruction. “These guys really know their stuff. Especially with Sammy and Tom being able to give us the grower perspective; they’re a valuable resource.”

They are, indeed, a valuable resource. But better than that, they’re great neighbors. Many thanks to Shawn Judy, Sam Moore, and Tom Gerber for coming out and helping our team do whatever it takes to protect our home and our community!

*Photos courtesy Matt Giberson and Bob Williams.