Strengthening Windsor Castle’s longleaf pines with fire

Published 4:36 pm Monday, February 26, 2024

A “drip torch” is roughly the same size and shape as a standard fire extinguisher, but serves the opposite purpose.

The cylindrical red metal container is filled with a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel. A team of firefighters and forestry specialists used the fire-starting devices on Feb. 22 to set ablaze a longleaf pine field in Smithfield’s Windsor Castle Park.

Bobby Clontz, southeast stewardship and fire program manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Chapter, gave the order to proceed with the controlled burn just after 1:30 p.m. Seconds later, a straight line of flames sprouted.

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Clontz, who the team refers to as their “burn boss,” is a specialist in restoring the fire-maintained pine forests that once dominated southeast Virginia. He’s been affiliated with TNC, an Arlington-headquartered nonprofit environmental group, since 2003. The group was founded in 1951 through a grassroots campaign across the United States but now has a presence in more than 70 countries and territories.

Clontz said this particular 2-acre field was planted four years ago to represent a fire-controlled longleaf ecosystem. Burning the undergrowth helps spur new native grasses and encourages the trees to grow tall rather than wide.

“Longleaf pines are nearly immune to fire,” said Henry McBurney, a volunteer with the Virginia Master Naturalists’ Historic Southside chapter who helped plant the trees in 2019.

According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, longleaf pine forests spanned an estimated  90 million acres from southern Virginia to eastern Texas in 1607 when the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown. Virginia’s shipbuilding industry, over the next two centuries, fueled demand for the naturally fire resistant longleaf wood.

By 1893, then-U.S. Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry Chief Bernhard Fernow had declared longleaf pines “for all practical purposes, extinct.” A 1998 census of the species found only 4,400 longleaf pines remaining on less than 800 acres in Virginia.

Smithfield’s Town Council has, since 2014, worked to reintroduce the trees, which can live over 300 years, to Windsor Castle Park. The Virginia Master NaturalistsHistoric Southside chapter joined forces with the Windsor Castle Park Foundation in 2019 to plant 104 longleaf pines provided to the town at no cost by the Virginia Department of Forestry at the request of the Nature Conservancy. By the end of 2022 there were over 3,000 longleaf pines spanning nearly 10 acres in the park.

The town’s plan for the trees calls for periodic controlled burns to remove the undergrowth once the seedlings reach a fire-resistant state. The burns are intended to create an environment that favors longleaf pines over competitors and encourage the return of native flora.

Dylan Gabagni, operations land steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, said controlled burns entail starting downwind and incrementally working your way into the wind to control its direction and spread. Internal ignition, he said, helps to mitigate the intensity and heat of the fire.

“A lot of these trees will be brown almost to the top,” Gabagni said.

Browning the trees’ lower branches, he said, helps spur the trees out of what he called the “grass stage.”

A successful controlled burn is largely dependent on the weather. A spot forecast the National Weather Service provided to Clontz ahead of the burn called for a high of 61ºF, south wind gusts up to 14 mph and 38% humidity, with an 80% chance of rain later that evening and the next morning – ideal conditions that matched Clontz’s burn plan.

Clontz said to proceed with his plan, he also had to obtain an exemption from Virginia’s burn ban, which prohibits open-air outdoor burning prior to 4 p.m. from Feb. 15 through April 30 if the fire is within 300 feet of woods or dry grass.