Why are They Setting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on Fire on Purpose?

Apr 21, 2016

The border of the controlled burn can be laid out using drip torches, which essentially put out diesel and gas to guide the flames.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

A 35-acre section of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park looks a lot different right now than it did at the start of the day.

Along one section of Canal Road in Valley View there are large orange signs, but they’re not warning of road construction. Instead, they read “Controlled Burn: Do Not Report.”

Cuyahoga Valley National Park officials scheduled a controlled burn for the Terra Vista Natural Study Area.

"There's a couple of choices for loops to hike,” says Pamela Barnes, head of community engagement for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Terra Vista is a hilly mass of brush and trees just east of the intersection of Canal Road and Tinkers Creek Road in Valley View. The main trail to the top of Terra Vista is a popular attraction for nature watchers.

“Our butterfly scientists follow the same trail to monitor butterfly populations. And there's a lake that you can walk by because there used to be a quarry here, and now it's full of water.”

Spring v. Autumn
Much of that quarry is surround by thick brush made up of Autumn Olive.

“It's a tall, woody plant. It looks kind of brushy. It's very thick and when you cut a trail, it kind of looks like you're walking through a tunnel of brush. It will drown out anything else. So, any native plant that's trying to come up, doesn't have a chance."

And that’s why the park needed to burn about 35 acres in Terra Vista. Barnes says simply trying to keep up with the brush with maintenance is a losing battle.

“Fire in nature does serve a purpose. Think of it as the reset button.” And this time of year is ideal because it’s not as dry as late summer.

"Today happens to fit the bill for just the right conditions for wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, temperature; all of those things are kind of what they're looking for.”

A controlled burn
Hiking up to the top of Terra Vista provided a bird's eye view of the controlled burn, from about 200 yards 

As the flames attack the Autumn Olive, they leave behind a scorched mass that looks like black-and-white string.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

  away.

"We're looking at the tree line. And you can see the smoke line before us. We can hear the crackling of the fire. And you can see some of the firefighters working and you can see some of the flames coming our way. So we're not going to get any closer."

Barnes adds that the trees in the line of the fire will not be greatly affected, since the flames move quickly and stay low to the ground.

“The trees should be fine. You can visit some areas in Brecksville Reservation of Cleveland MetroParks where they've done prescribed burns. And you can see that the trees come through it just fine.”

Fighting fire
Nine firefighters from Cuyahoga Valley National Park joined Dan Morford and three others from Indiana. He’s performed about 100 controlled burns, versus just two done in recent years by the park.

"We have what we call a drip torch: it's a mix of diesel and gas. Lighters use that to light and we work with the wind -- when there is a breeze like today -- and we just get it good and black. And that way we can walk right along the line and we can be very specific about where we drop the fuel to start a fire.

“This smell is a smell of a rather large campfire: its wood and grass material that's burning so it smells very similar to a campfire. Neighbors may get a little bit of the drift smoke. As you can see, it's going up pretty well."

This drip torch is filled with a diesel and gas mix. The firefighters use these to prescribe the borders in a controlled burn, such as the one at Terra Vista in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

Putting out the fire
When the whole process finished, Morford and his team “circle the whole thing. We have our line around it and basically the two sides will come together.”

This is the only controlled burn scheduled for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park this year. Officials wanted to deal with the invasive species now, before firefighters are needed for forest fires later in the summer.

By mid-summer, nature will have caught up to the “fire-reset” from this controlled burn, and the Terra Vista Natural Learning Area will look as though nothing unnatural ever happened. Visitors will be able to enjoy the view but without thick, eight-foot-high brush obscuring everything else.