Rash of Western Md. fires may help revive forests

November 08, 1991|By Liz Bowie

For the third time this week, fires burned in Western Maryland state forests yesterday, but experts say the flames may have helped the woods as much as hurt them.

Fueled by dry brush and dead trees, 102 acres burned in the steepest sections of Green Ridge State Park near Cumberland. About 50 firefighters had stopped the spread of the fire, but it had not been brought under control by late yesterday, according to Robert Gould at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

The state forest has become a tinderbox in the past several months. Thirty percent of the trees have died because of drought and gypsy moths, said Eric Schwaab, chief of resource management for the state Forest and Park Service, and the soil is dry 8 to 10 inches deep. The dead trees still standing provided sufficient fuel to power intense flames.

The first fire in Green Ridge last weekend, believed to have been caused by a cigarette, burned 262 acres before it was controlled. A second fire in Cunningham Falls State Park in Frederick County charred 30 acres. The causes of that fire and yesterday's blaze were still under investigation.

The Department of Natural Resources restricted access to about a third of Green Ridge yesterday and prohibited smoking there.

Even under normal conditions, Green Ridge is particularly vulnerable to fires because rain clouds are often empty by the time they reach the east side of the Allegany mountains, said Brian McCarthy, a forest ecologist at Frostburg State University. Before people began suppressing fires in Green Ridge several decades ago, it was not uncommon for the forest to have small fires.

The dry climate and natural fires produced just the right environment for special areas called shale barrens that are little islands of smaller plants in the forest, Mr. McCarthy said. "Some of those communities haven't had a burn in many decades and so the forest encroaches into them. It has been suggested that a burn might open the areas."

The shale barrens contain some endangered species and special plants that are not common elsewhere.

In addition, Mr. McCarthy said, some forest ecologists have speculated that suppressing fires in hardwood forests like Green Ridge has contributed to the loss of oaks. "There are a lot of ecological values to having fires," Mr. McCarthy said. "It is not necessarily a bad thing."

However, authorities on forests do not advocate a policy of letting fires burn uncontrolled in Maryland, as is done in the West, where there are vast acres of forests.

"Because there are residences, it is very difficult to let a wildfire burn here without resulting in private property damage," said Glen Besa, a member of the Sierra Club who lives about a mile from the fire that burned yesterday.

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