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Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023

Parts of the western edge of Shenandoah National Park, along with large swaths of state and private forest land in Madison County, are still burning today. The wild fire that started about a month ago and now covers nearly 4,000 acres shows no sign of stopping, despite enormous efforts from firefighters who have descended from around the country.

As of Sunday, the Virginia Department of Forestry reported that the 3,877 acre fire was about “40% contained.” That means firefighters have built containment lines around about 40% of the blaze. Containment lines are often either trenches dug to keep the fire from spreading or areas that firefighters intentionally burn to remove any flammable materials. (You can read more about how containment lines in forest firefighting work in this NPR report from 2017.)

A map shows an area in red outlined with lines in either dark red or black. At the top right of the map in a box are the words, "Quaker Run Wildfire: 3832 Acres as of November 9, 9pm."
A map of the Quaker Run Wildfire shows the areas with containment lines in black. The red lines show the edges of the fire with no containment lines. Map provided by the National Park Service

In the Quaker Run Fire (so named for the road by which the fire started) firefighters have used both methods. But during the last month, this fire has jumped multiple containment lines. That’s part of the reason why officials predict this fire could continue burning for weeks, as reported in the Daily Progress.

There is some good news, though. As of Monday, no structures had been damaged, though a handful of residents west of Syria were urged to evacuate. (Read more about that evacuation in this report from CBS19.) And, so long as no one is injured, and no residence or buildings are damaged, it’s possible that in the long run this fire may do more good than harm.

This fire is not like the wildfires you see raging on the West Coast that tower far above the treeline and consume entire forests. In Madison County, even the unchecked portions of the blaze are only really burning debris on the forest floor. The mature trees are unscathed.

Two photos of wildfires are pictured side-by-side. On the left, firefighters approach trees with the ground smoking, with some low flames in the background. On the right, flames are high in trees.
On the left, a Virginia Department of Forestry photo from last week of firefighters approaching the edge of Madison County’s Quaker Run Wildfire. On the right, a Bureau of Land Management photo of a wildfire in the Pacific Northwest in 2013. Photo on the left provided by the Virginia Department of Forestry. Photo on the right provided by the Bureau of Land Management.

“Standing here, from the incident command post, and looking up on Double Top Mountain, you can’t actually tell that this was on fire a couple of days ago,” Virginia Department of Forestry spokesperson Cory Swift told Virginia Public Radio. (I recommend reading that article). “A lot of the trees are still green. A lot of them still have their leaves on them. We’re not seeing that mature trees have had many casualties.”

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An aerial photo shows smoke rising from a forest in fall colors with a helicopter pouring water from a large bucket.
A Nov. 5 photo of the Quaker Run Wildfire shows smoke rising from the forest, but the tree-tops remain untouched. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Forestry.

That means, wildlife in the burn area will probably survive the fire just fine. Some animals will ride out the blaze high in the treetops, others will burrow underground, and the rest will simply move away from it.

This type of wildfire that burns low without destroying a forest can actually be beneficial to the ecosystem. Fires are natural occurrences and forests have evolved to depend on them. There are some plants that need fire for their seeds to germinate. And, even for those that don’t, the ash left by fires deposits needed nutrients into the soil. There’s a lot of literature explaining this. Here’s one resource from National Geographic. And here’s another interesting opinion piece from the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg by columnist Donnie Johnston theorizing that this will be the outcome of the Quaker Run Wildfire.

Still, it’s not all positive. Residents near the fire are experiencing lots of smoke. And the cost to taxpayers of fighting this fire will be high.

Do any of our readers live near the Quaker Run Wildfire and have information they’d like us to know? Please reach out here, and leave a good method for us to contact you!

Have a safe week all,

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.