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A pitch pine at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. | Photographer: Julie Makin -

Rare controlled burn planned for Wharton Brook State Park in Wallingford

Pitch pine, Torch pine

Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Grows 40 to 70 feet with irregular, globular form.

Hardy species resistant to fire and injury.

Thrives in dry rocky soil other trees cannot tolerate.

Used primarily for lumber and pulpwood.

Common name refers to high resin content.


WALLINGFORD — The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Forest Service are planning a controlled burn at Wharton Brook State Park this spring to conserve a protected pine tree species struggling to survive.

The pitch pine, otherwise known as candlewood or torch pine, is a rigid medium-sized tree that once flourished in Connecticut. Unlike many tree species that need nutrient rich soil, the pitch pine thrives in sandy barren soil, according to Chris Martin, DEEP’s director of forestry. Pitch pine growth used to be expansive between North Haven and Meriden, where soil has a sandy consistency, Martin said.

The state developed a 21-acre pitch pine reserve at Wharton Brook State Park, Martin said. At least 11 endangered species depend on the ecosystem created by the pitch pine, he said.

Wildfires might seem like a natural enemy to the growth of pitch pines, but the species actually spreads through fire. Seeds are distributed from the tree’s cones. The cones often don’t open for many years, but they “open up when heated,” Martin said. “When under those conditions, they open and reseed.”

But “we’re losing this type of ecosystem,” Martin said, as the state has been settled and wildfires become rare. If there is a fire, it’s quickly extinguished. By starting a controlled fire, “we’re interceding on nature’s path and setting the clock back to spur this pitch pine growth,” he said. “The goal is to grow the pitch pine.”

The fire will also clear the area of other forest growth not native to the region.

“The pitch pine, given the sandy soil, surpasses other plants in the area that need good soil,” Martin said. “It’s really a harsh place to be.”

But over time an organic layer builds up when needles drop from the trees, improving soil conditions and allowing other plants to establish themselves. The pitch pine species struggles to survive around other hardwood species, according to the U.S. Forestry Service. It is also intolerant of shade.

“We want to keep these unique ecosystems intact,” Martin said.

DEEP has no set date for the controlled burn, he said. Ideally, the burn must be performed before the area greens. The weather must be perfect, with low winds, clear skies and good air quality. The goal is to have the right conditions so smoke rises into the air and doesn’t travel into residential areas, Martin said. It’s likely the agency won’t know when the burn will occur until the day before, keeping a close eye on the weather, he said.

Similar controlled burns are performed by the state a few times annually, Martin said. They occur often near the coastline or around Hopeville Pond State Park in Jewett City, but not in this area of the state, he said.

Wallingford emergency officials have been notified, but won’t be directly participating in the burn, Acting Fire Chief Richard Heidgerd said.

Heidgerd said he has never heard of a controlled burn being conducted in the area.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in one,” he said, “but our involvement is minimal at best.”

Heidgerd said he expects 911 calls to surge the day of the burn. By being aware of the burn, dispatchers and fire officials can put concerns at ease, he said.

As an educational opportunity “we will put units down there just as a learning curve, even though it’s not even required,” Heidgerd said.

Fire Marshal Carmen Rao plans to stop by the burn just to observe. Rao is responsible for issuing permits for open burns in town. He has never experienced a controlled burn in a forest setting. Usually, they are just small fires to rid an area of brush.

“It’s not something you see that often,” he said.

In other parts of the country, especially out West, controlled burns are performed regularly for forest management and fire control, Rao said. By clearing an area around where the fire will take place, a “fire break” is created so the “fire can’t jump,” he explained.

People talk about the lack of wildfires in the area, Rao said, but they are actually a necessary phenomenon. The biggest issue is people have developed in wooded areas putting themselves in nature’s path. Years ago, “there were fires all the time,” Rao said, “and when the forest came back, it was always said to be better than before. Us humans tend to get in the way.” (203) 317-2224 Twitter: @Andyragz

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