February 5, 2020

Park Commission to Conduct Prescribed Burn at Mercer Meadows

FIRES FOR A PURPOSE: The Pole Farm at Mercer Meadows will be the site of a controlled burn at some point during the next few months, but there is no cause for alarm. The New Jersey Forest Fire Service and Mercer County Park Commission will oversee the burn to suit ecological needs.

By Anne Levin

For a few days between now and mid-June, the smell of smoke will be in the air and flames will be visible, in and around the Pole Farm at Mercer Meadows. But there is no need to call the fire department.

Mercer County Park Commission is holding a prescribed burn in the area to manage habitats and other forestry and ecological needs. Since the Prescribed Burn Act was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2018, burns have been taking place across the state. Fires are lit, monitored, and managed by the Forest Fire Service (NJFFS), whose staff have been trained to conduct safe and effective prescribed burns.

“We’re really excited to be able to utilize this land management technique,” said Anthony Cucchi, Mercer County’s superintendent of parks. “It will benefit wildlife and reduce hazardous fuel loads, so there are two benefits — public safely and ecology.”

The goals include controlling invasive species and reducing woody growth that is encroaching into the meadows. “Previously, this was managed through big mowing projects,” said Cucchi. “But this is more effective. And it is actually more natural. Our grasslands have evolved in response to wildfires. Native Americans used them. So the native wildlife we’re trying to support is used to this. It’s a disturbance, if you will.”

PRESCRIBED BURN AREAS: This map from Mercer County Park Commission details where and approximately when burns will take place at Mercer Meadows.

Properly conducted, prescribed burns encourage native seed germination, reduce invasive plant pressure, and cycle nutrients into the soil. They have also been successful in reducing tick and insect pest populations.

The burns at Pole Farm are expected to take place between now and late spring as determined by the Section Forest Fire Warden. Two areas will receive a dormant season burn prior to April 15, over two to four days. One area will undergo a growing season burn later this spring, prior to June 15, over one to two days.

“We can only do this when weather conditions are just right, when it’s safe, and won’t pose a risk,” said Cucchi. “The Forest Fire Service looks to ensure that winds are coming in a direction that brings smoke away from nearby residences, and get it up high as quickly as possible. They have been doing this for years, since about the 1920s. So it is not a new management too.”

The exact days can’t be pinpointed. “We have a window of time, what we call the dormant season burn,” said Cucchi. “We get notified at least 48 hours in advance. Then we notify the public, close the area, and do the burn. Generally it takes less than a day to complete. The forest service tells us when we can reopen.”

Immediate neighbors of the area are being mailed notices about the plan. As far as air quality goes, “It will be noticeable that the burn has occurred,” said Cucchi. “Our stewardship team will be studying the response in burn areas.”

While this is the first time Mercer County is utilizing this technique for Mercer Meadows,  approximately 35,000 acres were designated to be burned in New Jersey by the NJFFS in 2019.

The park will be closed to the public while the burns are taking place. The closure will be posted at all entrances, crossings, and trail heads, and on the Park Commission website and social media pages. While the burn is in progress, law enforcement and fire personnel, equipment, and vehicles will be on hand at the Pole Farm and surrounding areas.

“These are slow moving, well managed, and well overseen, small-scale burns,” said Cucchi. “The flames might be 10 to 15 feet at times, but they actually reduce the risk of wildfires in the area.”