Lehigh Gap Nature Center Director Dan Kunkle announced that the Center is instituting a prescribed fire on its refuge. A one-day prescribed fire is planned for April 13, but the timing is highly weather, wind and moisture dependent and the burn may need to be delayed if conditions for the fire are not acceptable. The possible time range for the test burn is from April 13 to April 27. The fire will encompass a 10-acre section of the grassland and be visible from Palmerton and from Route 248 just above the old Lehigh and New England Railroad bed.
Lehigh Gap Nature Center is located on part of the Palmerton Superfund site which was contaminated with heavy metal. After half a century of barren mountainside, the Nature Center brought vegetation back to the Blue Mountain-Kittatinny Ridge near Palmerton by planting prairie grasses on the site. These prairie grasses do not take up the heavy metals and keep them safely in place underground.
To effectively manage the prairie grasses Lehigh Gap Nature Center in cooperation with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency will be testing prescribed fire as a management tool. The goal of the fire is to prevent growth of woody trees and shrubs, which take up and mobilize the heavy metals that are currently safely entrenched in the soil.
A professional forestry and fire services company, Silvix LLC, is the contractor that will conduct the prescribed burn. Specialists from the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources – fire division, will be on site as well as volunteers from local fire departments including East Penn Township, Bowmanstown, and Palmerton to ensure the fire does not escape its boundary area.
They will also extinguish the fire completely after the burn. The fire will only be conducted when westerly winds are blowing to ensure that the fire cannot spread toward houses several miles to the west in East Penn Township.
Kunkle said, "We want to make sure residents of the area know that this is being done very carefully by professionals who are among the most experienced in Pennsylvania in conducting prescribed burns. Fire is an excellent ecological tool when used carefully and timed correctly."
Monitoring equipment will be setup by EPA, Cornell University, and the U.S. Forest Service to measure the smoke for toxicity and its travel range. In addition, researchers from Moravian College and Cornell University will be on site during and after the fire to study its effectiveness in meeting the management objectives.