Green Pages

A Burning Desire

TCI’s first controlled burn in the pine yard a success.

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

The Caicos Pine Recovery Project (CPRP), overseen by the Department of Environment & Maritime Affairs (DEMA), completed the first controlled burn in TCI’s pine yards on May 9, 2012. The burn was supervised by foresters experienced in the use of prescribed fire for maintaining pine rockland (pine yard) ecosystems, and involved training for CPRP and DEMA staff members.

Pine yards are fire-dependent habitats that require periodical ground fires every 5–15 years to prevent broadleaf trees from taking over. Most pine yard fires are ignited naturally by lightning during wet (spring and hurricane) seasons, and burn quickly and low to the ground. The fine fuel of pine needles, grasses, and dry palm fronds stunts the growth of broadleaf trees while releasing a flush of nutrients into the pine yard. Pine trees over 1 1/2 inches in diameter are typically safe from fire due to thick bark and branchless lower trunks. While seedlings may perish in the fire, the new flush of nutrient from ash can provide fertiliser for seedlings growing the following year.

Pine sapling

Natural recovery of a pine sapling after controlled burn

Controlled burning, also called prescribed fire, is a management tool used in pine rocklands around the world to prevent the excess build-up of coarse fuel (branches and dead trunks), to suppress broadleaf plants, and to maintain healthy pine yard habitats. The technique is used extensively in Florida and the Bahamas, where pine rocklands cover thousands of acres. Suppression of fire over decades can lead to a dangerous build-up of fuel that results in the uncontrollable wildfires such as those seen recently in the western USA and Australia. Controlled burning may cause temporary inconvenience for people living close to pine yards, but in the long run they result in a much safer environment.
TCI’s first controlled burn was conducted in Middle Caicos on May 9, 2012, after extensive training by members of the US Forest Service. Along with mimicking the effects of natural pine fires, it was also experimental to investigate possible effects of fire on the pine tortoise scale, the introduced insect pest killing the Caicos pine. For several months before the burns, DEMA and Department of Agriculture staff cleared fire-breaks around the two triangular plots (just over an acre each) to prevent escape for fire, and also cleared one-metre circles around each small pine sapling to protect the smaller trees. Another square plot was added just before the burn.
Controlled burn

Flash Blaise ignites spot fires within burn plot.

Just over two acres of pine yard, comprising three separate burn plots, were burned under the expert guidance of Burn Boss David Grimm of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The fires were ignited under the supervision of Ben Hornsby of the US Forest Service, and prevented from spreading under the supervision of Dr. Joseph O’Brien, also of the US Forest Service. DEMA staff members and visiting specialists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew— a major project partner—took turns learning the hands-on methods for igniting and “holding the fire,” or preventing its spread. The ignition and burn of the first plot were witnessed by Permanent Secretary Susan Malcolm, Special Projects Manager Sally Rampersad, District Commissioner of North & Middle Caicos Dottis Arthur, DEMA Acting Director Henry Wilson, and Department of Agriculture Director Nicky Turner. DEMA participants and observers included Project Manager B Naqqi Manco, Scientific Officer Eric Salamanca, then-Curator Lormeka Williams, CPRP Maintenance Worker Judnel “Flash” Blaise, and Maintenance Worker Jean Kenol Joseph.
Using methods tailored to the wind and weather conditions and terrain, the plots were burned and the fire was monitored. Dr. O’Brien took thermal images of the fire with a special camera to study temperature and behaviour of the fire. Project Manager B Naqqi Manco was especially pleased with the first plot burning, “The first plot burned in such a way that it looked exactly like a textbook photo of a typical pine rockland fire.” Burn team members remained on the site to ensure that the edges of the plots were burned out and returned to the site for the next week to extinguish smouldering trunks and observe the post-fire effects. Some trees suffered needle scorch, but the burn experts predicted that with ample rain, the scorched pine trees will be able to shed scorched needles and re-grow. A heavy downpour ten days after the burn came at the perfect time to renew the pine trees.
Effects of the controlled burns will be studied for years, and most immediately this has been carried out by two Masters of Science candidates from Imperial College London. Jennifer Mark and Alex Hudson observed the trees’ recovery and the scale insect’s reaction to the fire for two months after the burn. RBG Kew team members will return in November 2012 to monitor additional effects, and several other researchers are now inclined to visit to study the after-effects of the controlled burn. When the project and the first controlled burn were presented at the Pine Rocklands Working Group conference in Homestead, FL in June 2012, a number of US-based researchers expressed interest in assisting in further pine yard research in TCI.
With no escaped fires, injuries, or unexpected incidents, TCI’s first controlled burn was a success. Project Manager B Naqqi Manco was happy to call the TCI Fire & Rescue Service, Airports Authority, Middle Caicos Police, and other stakeholders to report the all-clear and success for the burn. Martin Hamilton, RBG Kew’s UK Overseas Territories Programme Coordinator, stated in reference to the burn day, “I feel the first prescribed fire in TCI history has been a great success and a real stepping stone for the Caicos Pine Recovery Project. TCI Government, working together with international partners like Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the US Forest Service, has demonstrated their desire and determination to save the National Tree. Without active management that includes prescribed fire being led by and funded through local government, the Caicos pine will be lost forever.” RBG Kew’s involvement in the Caicos Pine Recovery Project has been paramount to its success; more information on the pine and RBG Kew’s work can be found at www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Pinus-caribaea.html.
Additional fieldwork in May 2012 related to the Caicos Pine Recovery Project included studies on the interactive ecology of the pine yards and other ecosystems. Dr. Chris Malumphy of UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) carried out collection and identification of insect pests on TCI plants, noting several hundred species—many of agricultural significance. RBG Kew’s Dr. Paul Green collected volatile chemicals from healthy pine trees to see if they are chemically repelling scale insects, and TCI’s first ever mycological (fungus) study was led by Dr. Martyn Ainsworth. May 2012 also saw the first outplanting of nursery-grown pine trees in a wild restoration plot on Pine Cay, beginning on May 18 (World Plant Conservation Day) and continuing through the week of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. A total of 75 trees was planted out in what will be called the Diamond Jubilee Pine Yard, the first of several intended planting-out recovery plots to restore pine yard habitat in TCI.

For more information on the Caicos Pine Recovery Project, search for it on Facebook or contact the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs.



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