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Park Service To Use Fire To Prevent Fire In Shenandoah National Park

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Controlled burns are being used in the Shenandoah National Park to prevent large uncontrolled fires and to stimulate plant growth.
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Controlled burns are being used in the Shenandoah National Park to prevent large uncontrolled fires and to stimulate plant growth.

As firefighters battle huge blazes in the west, officials at one Virginia national park are preparing to set fire to one of the most beautiful parts of the Shenandoah—an ecosystem found nowhere else in the world.

There was a time in history when Smokey the Bear was the second most recognized character in America  behind Santa Claus. "Only you can prevent forest fires," he warned.

But after thirty years of public service announcements and heroic efforts by park rangers and firefighters, science persuaded the National Park Service that setting small, regular fires could be a good thing.

Spokesman Claire Comer says burning off brush reduces the risk that it will build up and feed much bigger fires and assures the survival of rare native plants.

"The diversity of vegetation here that we want to encourage is being basically choked out by some of this underbrush that's growing up, so this just cleans it out and regenerates it," she says.

But controlled burns must be done when there's enough moisture in the air and on the ground to keep blazes from getting out of control.

"It's a balance between wanting it to be dry enough for the fire to do what you want it to do, but not so dry that it will ignite. We're looking for very small flame length. You know, ankle-high at best," she explains.

And the park does its best to burn when the wind is blowing away from neighboring communities. Last spring, a bear cub was killed when it got caught in a controlled burn, but Comer says most wild animals outrun these blazes easily.

What's more, many forest seeds and flora are stimulated by fire. That's why, this fall, the park service plans to burn about 35 acres of The Big Meadows,  a unique ecosystem that contains 18 percent of the park's rare plants.

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