Assateague Burn Underway

ASSATEAGUE – A massive controlled, or prescribed, burn of invasive phragmites on Assateague Island got underway in earnest yesterday as thick smoke and open flames billowed from the barrier island.

National Parks Service crews from all over the country descended on Assateague yesterday to begin the second phase of an effort started last fall to rid the island of the destructive grasses. The first phase included an aerial spraying of the invasive plants with an approved herbicide, designed to kill the upper structures of the plants. The intent prescribed burns that got underway yesterday morning as part of the second phase of the project is to attack the phramites’ roots systems.

“These plants have a dense mat of roots a foot thick in some cases, and if you don’t kill the roots, they will recover and come back fairly quickly,” said Assateague Island National Seashore Acting Superintendent Carl Zimmerman. “They were treated with an herbicide last fall and this second phase is to eradicate what is left. The fire doesn’t so much kill the plants, but eliminates the dead adult plants and seed heads.”

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.

Trained wildlife firefighters from national parks all over the country are participating in the prescribed burns. The process is a meticulous one. For example, by mid-day yesterday a vast area had already been completed, with the controlled burn leaving in its wake and burned and scorched surface. Crews were then preparing to attack another area, carefully igniting fire lines around its perimeter to ensure the fire’s spread could be contained.

Chief Ranger Ted Morlock explained there is some collateral damage to non-targeted plant life during the prescribed burns, but the hearty native plant species bounce back and recover quickly. With the eradication of the noxious phragmites, that process will happen quickly. Because of the anticipated collateral damage, the prescribed burns are being directed to areas with the densest stands of the invasive phragmites. When the project is completed sometime later this month, depending on the weather, roughly 200 acres on the island will have been burned.