Before the end of March, weather permitting, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park will be conducting prescribed burns along highway 988 in the Davis Branch and Sugar Run areas. These are 455 acre and 43 acre burn units in mixed hardwood and conifer forest located along the north park boundary where highway 988 enters the park.
“This area was last burned in the spring of 2010 as part of the park’s overall Fire Management Strategy to help protect park resources and park neighbors from unplanned wildfires” explains Cumberland Gap’s Fire Module Assistant and veteran firefighter Supervisor Sasha Ernst. Ernst further shares “Prescribed burns are small to moderate sized fires applied under specially controlled and monitored conditions to help avoid out of control fires during the peak fire season. They are intended to reduce the amount of fuel (dead and downed timber) so that any wildfire can be more easily controlled before threatening nearby homes and buildings. In addition, these fires help maintain the health of the forest by clearing the understory and returning nutrients to the soil. Most of the native species are adapted to this type of burn, but would not survive a catastrophic fire that could result after years of dead wood collecting on the forest floor.”
Done properly, prescribed burns reduce the limbs and leaf litter on the ground that are the primary fuels for a wildfire. At the same time, these low-grade fires kill some shrubs and other tree species, leaving an open understory underneath a mixed hardwood forest. This was the type of forest that Thomas Walker and Daniel Boone saw when they traveled through the area, and the type of forest the park tries to maintain.
Before igniting the fire the park must wait for the right weather which influences the size of the fire, how hot it will burn, the direction the smoke will blow, the effect upon endangered species (like the Indiana Brown Bat) that may roost in the trees, and the quality of the experience for visitors and area residents traveling through or near the park.
Residents of Middlesboro may observe smoke rising over Dark Ridge to the east. Passers-by may notice smoke from the prescribed burn rising and fire crews working as they drive on highway 988 through the park. Cumberland Gap’s Chief Ranger Gene Wesloh cautions motorists who are traveling on highway 988 through the park to be alert to firefighters and fire apparatus in the area, but Wesloh expects no disruptions to traffic flow.
To learn more about fire in the national parks, go to www.nps.gov/cuga/parkmgmt/firemanagement.htm.