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Burn, Baby, Burn

Second controlled burn in Middle Caicos pineyard a success.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, Caicos Pine Recovery Project Manager

Following the excellent results of TCI’s first controlled burn in the Middle Caicos pineyard in May, 2012 (see Times of the Islands, Fall 2012 “A Burning Desire”), a second controlled burn was carried out on December 9, 2014 as part of the Caicos Pine Recovery Project’s ongoing work.

This is a flourishing Caicos pine Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis with open and closed cones.

This is a flourishing Caicos pine Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis with open and closed cones.

The second controlled burn was conducted on an area just under two acres in size, located several hundred metres south of the first burn plot in an area of relatively healthy pine trees. Despite the pine yard being severely flooded from Hurricane Cristobal and subsequent rains, the controlled burn went well — if supplying access challenges — and the extra water will assist the pines in recovering more quickly.
With oversight and training from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s United Kingdom Overseas Territories Programme and the United States Forest Service, DEMA team members learned valuable new skills and refreshed past lessons.
Controlled burning is the deliberate use of fire on a pre-determined and treated land area conducted for the health of the pine forest. Controlled burning is done with a strict Incident Command System in place, after the selected site has been thoroughly prepared by the cutting of firebreaks, analysis of fuels, and safety training. Residents were alerted to the burn with radio announcements, which proved effective.

The pine yards of North and Middle Caicos and Pine Cay are part of a globally threatened habitat more widely called pine rocklands, which only occur in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Turks & Caicos Islands. They are fire-dependent habitats dominated by one of a few species of tropical pines, and they require periodical burning to remain dominated by pine. Natural fires may be lightning-ignited, but the history of humans in the Turks & Caicos and Bahamas helped spread pine habitat, as the Lucayans used fire to help them hunt game. The low-intensity fires burn off pine needles and grasses, reducing the risk of wildfire and replenishing important nutrients in the thin soil, and the fire-adapted pine trees survive without difficulty.

Caicos pine, the National Tree of the Turks & Caicos Islands, dominated the pine yards in North and Middle Caicos and Pine Cay until an introduced invasive insect called the pine tortoise scale killed over 95% of the pine trees between 2005 and 2010. The controlled burn is part of an effort to save the pine from extinction due to the scale insect. (The Caicos pine Pinus caribaea variety bahamensis should not be confused with the invasive Australian pine or “cedar” Casuarina equisetifolia, which is not a pine at all).

The December 2014 burn was conducted in a two-acre plot which contains some of the healthiest remaining trees. The fire was held in by fire breaks and was overseen by four experts who have over 50 combined years and over one million combined acres of burn experience. Some of these experts, Dr. Joe O’Brien and Ben Hornsby, were on the team of the successful controlled burn in May 2012. Dr. Kevin Hiers and Thomas Walters of University of the South joined the new burn event, bringing new perspectives on fire management in TCI’s pine rockland ecosystems.

Pine tree health improved markedly after the burn on the 2012 site, with insect-stunted trees growing up quickly, free from pests, and producing cones within a year. The same is expected of the 2014 site. The fire was ignited around noon on December 9 and was controlled through the afternoon until it reached the firebreaks and was extinguished. The following day, all remaining smouldering material was doused.

video2014

Dr O’Brien captures temperature video of the fire behaviour, which burned exactly as expected.

The burn was used as a training and research opportunity. Five people received training in controlled burning, including three DEMA staff members, a DEMA intern, and a Caicos Pine Recovery Project volunteer. Visiting researchers took film of the fire, and recorded thermal video images (revealing the burn temperatures averaging 700–800ºF and spiking to 1000ºF in sawgrass patches). Time-lapse images are also being recorded over the next six months to monitor the recovery of the burn plot. Sapling trees were marked for post-fire survivorship tracking, and work is ongoing to prepare new plots for further controlled burns in May 2015. To allow interested persons, tourists, and school groups to visit the area, a hiking trail is currently being installed that will loop through areas of former pine, several burn plots, and adjacent broadleaf habitats.

The controlled burn team includes members of the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the United States Forest Service. Turks & Caicos Fire & Rescue, Environmental Health Department, and Civil Aviation Department have given their support of the exercise.

For more information, visit the new Caicos pine exhibit at the National Environmental Centre, Lower Bight Road, Providenciales; also find the Caicos Pine Recovery Project on Facebook and follow @KewUKOTs on Twitter.



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