MCHENRY — John Fry recalled a few years ago when folks on a cruising jumbo jet alerted emergency officials on the ground after they spotted smoke over roughly 30 acres in the United States National Park Service’s New River Gorge area.

Fortunately, the fire wasn’t wild. It was intentionally set. 

“It was a growing season burn. That’s why it was so smoky,” Fry said.

Fry, Monongahela National Forest assistant forest fire management officer, was among roughly 75 people who met recently at Garrett College for a Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network workshop.

The event focused on controlled burning for healthy forest management in the Appalachians. Topics included how to foster collaboration among forest experts for landscape-scale restoration, as well as how to talk to the public about the work, and were followed by question and answer periods.

Fry discussed the goals and limitations of a prescribed-burn plan for the area in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia.

“The plan that we have is outdated,” he said.

Prescribed fires are conducted under specific weather conditions and designed to accomplish pre-determined forest management goals. Monongahela National Forest follows strict guidelines for conducting prescribed burns, and takes into consideration environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and smoke management.

Fire personnel this spring completed prescribed burns on more than 2,000 acres on the Monongahela forest.

“We’re not treating as many acres as we should,” Fry said. “A lot of those projects are so small.”

He also talked of the importance of incorporating aerial ignition and drones into prescribed-burn plans, as well as the need to train more individuals to work on the projects.

Doug Manning, Monongahela National Forest north zone ecologist, said vegetation in the forest includes northern hardwoods, red spruce, oak, grasslands and shale barrens and limestones. 

“We have some of the highest valued timber in the east,” he said. “Prescribed fire in West Virginia is still relatively new.”

The controlled fires are used to promote tree growth and wildlife habitat with “minimal ground disturbance,” he said.

Hurdles for controlled burns include variable land topography, limited access to private land, and the public’s lack of familiarity with forest management programs.

The prescribed-fire goals include in-depth post-fire vegetation monitoring, he said. 

Deborah Landau, conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland chapter, organized the workshop.

“The goal of the fire learning network is to bring together fire practitioners,” she said and talked of the importance of large-scale and controlled fires for ecological benefit. 

Thousands of years ago, forest burns happened naturally due to causes including lightning. 

“There used to be fire all the time,” she said. “We don’t have wildfires like we used to. The landscape is changing.”

Today, federal and state agencies, as well as research institutions and colleges, are working together to get prescribed fires back on the ground, she said.

 “It’s good for nature,” she said. “But it also makes it safer because if we do more controlled burns, we’ll have fewer wildfires and the result will be a healthier forest.”

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