ASSATEAGUE – A controlled, or prescribed, burn of invasive phragmites on Assateague Island planned for this spring could cause extensive smoke and open flames to be visible from mainland areas from several miles away and for several days, as federal officials follow up with the second phase of an effort started last fall to rid the island of the destructive grasses.
Assateague Island National Seashore Acting Superintendent Carl Zimmerman announced this week the National Park Service will initiate several prescribed burns on an area encompassing roughly 200 acres on the barrier island for a one-week period between March 10 and April 1. Due to the uncertainty of the weather, NPS officials said this week it is not possible to predict the exact dates.
The planned prescribed burns are part of an aggressive plan of attack on the proliferation of noxious phragmites from one end of the barrier island to the other. Phragmites are prolific, non-native and highly invasive plants or weeds that take over salt marshes and other coastal areas by stunting the growth of indigenous plant-life attempting to co-exist with them.
Similar to most weeds, phragmites re-generate rapidly and must be completely removed or destroyed to prevent them from spreading further. They have dramatically increased in abundance on Assateague Island in recent years, displacing native plant communities and causing an adverse affect on habitats. It is widely believed the noxious plant was introduced to the area from overseas in shipping ballast material from the 18th and 19th centuries.
After being introduced to a new area, phragmites begin the process of replacing native plants with monocultures of themselves. Once established, they quickly expand and can entirely overtake large areas. In recent years, hundreds of acres of formerly native plant communities on the barrier island have been invaded by dense phragmites stands.
The first phase of the plan to eradicate phragmites on Assateague began last fall with an aggressive aerial treatment with an herbicide appropriately called Habitat. The prescribed burnings planned for later this spring will remove the above-ground remnants of the phragmite infestations treated with the herbicide last fall and will help facilitate the restoration of the affected areas with native coastal vegetation.
Park managers will ignite on purpose the prescribed fires planned on Assateauge under a pre-determined set of conditions including the weather in order to accomplish the specific resource management objectives. All prescribed burns will be accomplished under the guidance and direction of trained and experienced National Park Service personnel and will take place only when the humidity levels, wind speed, and other parameters meet fire safety criteria and optimal conditions for a successful burn. No structures will be threatened by these prescribed burning activities.
Conducting the prescribed burns will require temporary changes in traffic patterns and visitor use on certain portions of Assateague National Seashore in order to ensure public safety. As a result, short-term closures of portions of Bayberry Drive, Ferry Landing Road, and/or the Over Sand Vehicle Zone may be necessary during the project.
Treated areas of phragmites infestation will naturally convert back to native vegetation over the next five growing seasons and will once again provide essential habitat for the island’s diverse wildlife species. Park Service officials expect phragmite management activities to continue on Assateague Island during subsequent years.