All grasslands, like the coastal grasslands of Stratford Point, have to be intensely managed or else vegetational succession will mean it quickly progresses to scrub land and ultimately forest. Mowing and grazing are common practices used to maintain the grassland state though they are far from perfect solutions. Historically the Connecticut coastline featured sizable grasslands carved by fires from lightning strikes that would clear an area here or there every few years.
Fire is the preferred management strategy today as well as it allows for the removal of nearly all above-ground vegetation without the accumulation of downed vegetation on the ground (which can cause problems because it creates habitat for unwanted mammals and may hinder the regrowth of new shoots in spring) and it does not leave the site with excessive nutrients from all the biomass that is left to rot. Most sensitive plant species in the state require nutrient poor soils - which are hard to come by nowadays with the massive amounts of fertilizers used everywhere. It also does not result in the soil compression resulting from mowers or grazers and helps to clear out all invasive and non-native plant species.
Here are two videos of the burn followed by a lot of photos I snapped throughout the burn to guide you through the process. Remember to enlarge the video with the button in the lower right of the video frame if you like or click through the links to watch them on the Vimeo site. Part one features the burn test to start the day followed by total burn of the Long Island Sound side of Stratford Point. Part two has even more ferocious flames as the main upland section is burned after a slow back burn against the wind to give some space between the structures and the fire.
Pre-burn meeting with CT DEEP, CAS, Stratford Fire Department and town officials, media, and more
Walking the site - picking up litter, looking at what trees to avoid burning, and here clearing a bit of brush around the Prickly Pear Cactus marked by flagging behind the small cedar to protect it
CAS Conservation Biologist Twan Leenders in full CT DEEP Forestry gear to take photos up close and personal during the burn - look for them in our next blog entry!
Brown-looking grasslands before the burn
Test burn of a small area to see how the fire acted, where the smoke went, and continued weather measurements
Smoke billowing out from test area towards Long Island Sound as fire burns in the same direction - perfect!
It quickly became obvious to a controlled burn newcomer like myself that there was going to be a lot of smoke as this was only a small area
After a successful test burn most of the Long Island Sound side of Stratford Point was up for a full burn, and drip torches lit it from multiple sides
These fires quickly progressed from the edges and burned towards the Sound with the wind pushing them
There were some hot spots and fireballs like this one as it rapidly consumed vegetation
This Bald Eagle fly-by, perhaps a migrant heading back to the north, momentarily distracted us and thrilled the non-birders
Here the DEEP crew lights the other side of this portion of the grasslands
The fire left blackened earth in its wake...
...as you can really see here looking towards the mouth of the Housatonic River
What an enormous and unbelievable plume of smoke going safely over the water
Scorched to the Sound
Preparing for the largest burn of the day of the main grasslands area on the back or western section of the site
Back burning begin in the area behind the structures and nearest the driveway for safety purposes
This is back burning with the fire progressing against the wind slowly and away from structures - see how the flames are bent by the strong westerly flow
Even just this portion of the burn produced an impressive sight
Wildlife Habitat Management Area indeed! The best management practices at work right there, and it was time to light even more of the area...
The edge of the large area being lit by drip torch
These flames got large, fast! The videos above provide much more footage of the largest flames as I could not take photos and video simultaneously
Even larger flames about to go by the American Kestrel box (which was empty!)
The speed of the fire roaring through the fuels and biomass on the ground left it untouched as expected
In a little less than four minutes this entire area had burned through
A member of CT DEEP alone in the ashes in what appears to be a far away and remote place, not coastal Connecticut
Smoke then dissipating as it went towards the Stratford Lighthouse
Burned to a crisp
All that was left to burn was this isolated area surrounded by pavement, and it was lit in a single spot in the center so that we could watch the progression from this one point, first in a circle then expanding outward
This fire still moved rapidly...
...as intense flames consumed all up to the pavement showing how this unnatural barrier prevented it from spreading anywhere else
Another fireball of sorts
The flames reached impressive heights here as once again the location did not resemble the Stratford Point I know
The flames subsided but still covered the lighthouse in smoke
But not for long...
the funding received for much of this upcoming work by Connecticut Audubon Society and Sacred Heart University in a later post as we head into the spring planting season. If you thought Stratford Point was a wonderful piece of habitat and great birding destination you have not seen anything yet.
All videos and photos © Scott Kruitbosch and not to be reproduced without explicit permission