Fires have consumed nearly 20,000 acres in Va. this spring. That could be good for the environment.

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

A fire at The Waterfall Mountain complex west of Luray Wednesday night. (Courtesy Peter Forister Photography)

Almost 20,000 acres have been lit by flames that primarily torched the western and central parts of the state so far during Virginia’s 2024 spring fire season. With about a week left until the season ends, that is double the amount of acres affected annually in the state across its 10-year average.

There’s no question that the fires visibly caused an immediate loss of vegetation and wildlife habitat, but state and federal officials said in interviews with the Mercury last week the blazes provide some benefits and are a centuries-old resource management tool.

“It does play an important role in the ecosystem,” said Michael Downey, assistant director for wildfire mitigation and prevention at the Virginia Department of Forestry. “In the public’s eye it is a natural disaster, but we do try to keep it in a controlled, contained environment.”

Prescribed, or controlled, blazes are regularly implemented by state and federal agencies, which include the Department of Forestry, the Department of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. It’s the unruly nature of the wildfires that can cause concern, particularly given the proximity to neighborhoods and communities where people live.

“We don’t want people thinking, ‘Let’s go start a wildfire,’ but there are benefits,” said Michael Puckett, a small game project leader at DWR, adding that the fires are not solely a matter of loss of wildlife habitat, but a “matter of change.”

It’s the human communities abutting the wooded areas that are inhibiting wildlife’s ability to roam freely to and from impacted areas. Humans also contribute to some of the causes of the fires.

“Awildfires grow in severity/intensity, we will see species moving in new patterns and places in order to find new habitat,” both immediately after fires and in the longer term as species’ ranges shift, said Misty Boos, U.S. conservation policy manager at Wildlands Network.

“This underscores the importance of protecting large, connected landscapes and wildlife corridors so species can move and adapt, but it also demonstrates the importance of wildlife coexistence.”

Flora and Fauna

Starting at the ground level, the fires’ effects can matriculate down into the soil, depending on the severity, determined by fire intensity and duration.

The fires’ effect can increase dirt’s water repellency, or inability to hold water, leading to it eroding and potentially ending up in waterways.

Following the fires that hit the state in 2016, researchers at Virginia Tech found that some severely-burned areas were water repellent at rates of 68-74%. The unburned areas showed water repellency at a rate of 0-18%, the research found.

“A lot of fires in [Virginia] don’t get as large or hot as those out west, but in local areas we can see pretty severe burn severities,” said Ryan D. Stewart, an associate professor at Virginia Tech.

“Areas that have moderate to severe burn severities can have issues like the upper duff and organic layers being consumed, and development of a layer a few inches deep that does not easily rewet.”

A forest in Highland County during a prescribed burn by the Virginia Department of Forestry in 2021. (Courtesy Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

On the flora aspect, the clearing of taller trees can pave way for sunlight to reach the lower level vegetation, said Puckett. Creating a more diverse portfolio of vegetation within the forest can create a more diverse ecosystem, added Lane Gibbons, fire management specialist at Shenandoah National Park.

“If you kind of think of it in terms of investing, you don’t invest all of your money in one thing. That’s too much of a gamble,” said Gibbons. “You really want a diverse portfolio. It works very [similarly] in forests. If you have more of a diverse portinfo — tall versus short, young versus old —  if you have a greater variation [and] then you have a greater variation of types of organisms using those resources.”

Over time, forests in Virginia have become more resilient, with thicker oak trees popping up in places more susceptible to fires, Gibbons added, with less-deterrent maple pines growing in areas less likely to catch a blaze.

While oaks may be stronger, they also can attract invasive animal species, like the Spongy Moth, whose presence requires some maintenance and can be found throughout the state.

The caterpillar-like creatures provide benefits to forested areas by thinning out trees, allowing other plants to grow. But the bugs feed primarily on the oaks attracting them, which, in addition to their fire resilience, provide numerous benefits to the climate, including capturing carbon in the atmosphere.

“We’re looking at ways to bring back oak and fire is one of those ways to do a timber stand improvement,” Downey said, describing the process of removing undesirable species and then setting fires to bring back nutrients into the soil. “That’s sometimes what oak needs for it to regenerate.”

On the fauna aspect, the Wildlife Center of Virginia took in a bear cub found to suffer from smoke inhalation. Smaller amphibious animals like the box turtle suffer from the havoc wreaked by the blazes, because they live in small brush or leaf litter and can’t move out fast enough.

But larger wildlife that call the western parts of the state home, like turkey or small game like squirrels, may be displaced immediately, but sometimes they can be seen returning to the area before the smoke clears, Puckett said.

“We have enough moisture in the system here,” said Puckett, adding that wildlife can return within a year. “It’s not like cases out west that may burn down into the soil with the dry climate and lack of rainfall. Things don’t tend to recover as quickly as they do here.”

Human influence

It’s often humans, who infringe on animal habitats, that create cause for concern related to wildfires.

According to information released in January by the Weldon Cooper Center for Population Estimates, some rural areas of Virginia saw losses in population while others saw gains. Page County’s population grew by 2 to 4% from 2020 to 2023. Some central and eastern areas of the state, including Louisa County, grew by over 4%.

Population change from 2020 to 2023. (Courtesy Weldon Cooper Center Population Estimates)

Those increasing populations spur the development of communities abutting wooded areas that frequently prevent wildlife from being able to roam freely away from fires. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed House Bill 309 and Senate Bill 461, which directs the Virginia Department of Forestry to create a plan that includes protection of wildlife corridors, and large contiguous blocks of forests.

“As we’ve seen, events like wildfire (as well as floods, hurricanes, extreme snow storms, etc.) can temporarily bring wildlife into closer proximity to people, which can cause conflicts,” said Boos, with Wildlands Network.

More development means more utility infrastructure, such as electric power lines, getting built. The strong winds this past season that led to  power lines being knocked down and sparking blazes, instead of natural causes like lightning strikes that happen in Alaska.

“80 to 90% of fires are caused by humans,” Downey said.

When asked about downed power lines causing some of the fires this past spring, spokesperson for Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative said the utility, “will continue to cooperate with all affected localities to assess damage as we rebuild damaged power grid infrastructure.”

“This widespread event, combined with extremely low humidity, made conditions favorable for wildfires,” said Preston Knight, SVEC spokesperson. “Many communities throughout our service territory have experienced wildfires and our hearts go out to those who have suffered anguish and loss.”

Residents can clear debris from around their homes to prevent the fires from spreading, a task the Department of Forestry can help with despite their limited capacity, Downey said.

“We can only do what we can with our resources,” Downey said.

Impact going forward

Leading up to the fall and spring fire season, there were periods of drought identified by the Department of Environmental Quality. A report from the U.S. The Department of Agriculture found that “increased fuel load and more frequent droughts may increase wildfire frequency and intensity within the Southeast.”

That same USDA report said ways to make forests more resilient included, “taking steps necessary to appropriately manage stand density, hydrologic characteristics, and natural habitats,” and that these steps “can also have a positive impact on the ecological functioning and overall health of the forest.”

Adding fuel to the fire, literally: A study out of the University of California Riverside found plants are more easily burning as a result of absorbing more carbon that’s in the air, carbon created by pollution.

Creating markets for pulpwood and biomass that come from the over 16 million acres of forests in Virginia, about 80% of which are privately owned, can help reduce fuels by removing “less desirable species and residuals from the understory and floor of the forest,” said Corey Connors, executive director of the Virginia Forestry Association.

One of the authors of the University of California study’s said in a statement that, “we do need to implement better fire control and have more prescribed burns to use up plant fuel. We need to get rid of the old stuff.

“But the best way to decrease wildfires is to mitigate our carbon dioxide emissions,” Gomez said. “We need more emission control now.”

In Virginia the largest sources of emissions are transportation, followed by the commercial industry sector and electricity generation, according to DEQ.

While international research points to human-created emissions causing climate change, the impacts of climate change on the fires affecting the adaptability of the ecosystem in forests is still being determined, Gibbons said.

“It’s a topic that we’re trying to figure out,” he said. “We’ll implement strategies as we learn more.”

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up