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Soldiers Delight fire near Owings Mills less damaging than first thought, officials say; regrowth already visible

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Driving to her uncle’s house near Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area on Friday, Amy Kozak couldn’t help but to stop her car at a park overlook and get out to survey the damage.

It had been more than a week since a brush fire April 4 scorched hundreds of acres of the unique grassland ecosystem near Owings Mills. But flashing roadside signs still warned passing motorists on Deer Park Road that they might see smoke rising from hot spots on the landscape.

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“I was just curious after the news report, what it was like now,” Kozak said. “I didn’t think for a second I was going to see signs about smoke still ongoing.”

For Kozak, who grew up learning about the 19th century chromium mines at Soldiers Delight, and found solace hiking its 7 miles of trails during the coronavirus pandemic, the sight was unsettling.

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But gazing out over the charred terrain last week, she already saw signs of hope. Blades of grass were shooting up from the blackened ground, evidence that regrowth had begun.

Officials from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who initially estimated the fire’s spread at some 700 acres, have revised that down by more than half. That estimate was made using drone footage of the blaze, said Chris Smith, fire manager for the Maryland Forest Service, which falls under DNR.

“The next day, we took a GPS unit and walked the perimeter of fire to get a real good map,” Smith said. “Based on his GPS unit, we ended up with 321.4 acres, which is still a pretty substantial fire.”

Since the fire, officials have been periodically circling the area in utility vehicles, surveying the perimeter of the burned zone for any flare-ups, Smith said. Much of the smoke has been confined to the interior of the zone, which is less worrying than hot spots near the perimeter that could induce further spread, he said.

Chris Smith, fire manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, in the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. A recent brush fire burned 321.4 acres of the 1,900 acres of serpentine barrens. He said much of the smoke has been confined to the interior of the zone, which is less worrying than hot spots near the perimeter that could induce further spread.

And after Saturday’s rainfall, staff members didn’t observe any smoke rising from the terrain Sunday, which is a positive sign, Smith added.

Soldiers Delight’s singularity is defined in many ways by its geology. It is underlain by serpentinite, a green-hued bedrock that is rich in minerals such as chromium and magnesium, but does not contain much of the nutrients that many plants need to survive. The result is a barren Baltimore County vista with the look of an African savanna, covered in tall grasses, wildflowers and sparse clusters of oak trees that are all adapted to the adverse conditions.

Serpentine grasslands used to dot Central Maryland, occupying stretches of territory in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, according to a map that hangs in the Soldiers Delight Visitor Center. But now, as a result of development, mining and changing conditions, only a few enclaves remain in the state. At 1,900 acres, Soldiers Delight is the largest serpentine landscape in eastern North America, and contains 39 rare, threatened or endangered plant species, according to DNR.

It’s still unclear whether human actions ignited the April 4 brush fire, which forced the evacuation of 29 nearby homes but didn’t spread to any structures or cause any injuries save for minor wounds to a firefighter. Workers dropped water from a helicopter and trucked in thousands of gallons on pickup trucks, fire engines and all-terrain vehicles to douse the flames.

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More than 200 Baltimore County firefighters responded, the most in the county since a major fire at a propane facility in the 1970s, according to Baltimore County spokesperson Elise Armacost.

The State Fire Marshal and other investigating agencies are seeking eyewitnesses who were at Soldiers Delight when the fire started.

Soldiers Delight is an ecosystem well acquainted with fire, said Paula Becker, a natural resource biologist with DNR’s Natural Heritage Program. Its native plant life, including post and blackjack oak trees and various prairie grasses like little bluestem, are fire-adapted, meaning they’re equipped with mechanisms to survive fire — or even thrive because of it.

The problem is: Those species aren’t the only ones inhabiting Soldiers Delight. In fact, the natural area is in the throes of a decadeslong battle against non-native plants, namely Virginia pine trees and greenbrier, a climbing vine with thorny stems.

“Both Virginia pine and greenbrier are decidedly not fire-tolerant,” Becker said. “They both burn — as we have seen — exceedingly hot. And that’s one of the reasons that the fire at Soldiers Delight this past week was so intense.”

During the blaze, greenbrier growing on tree trunks effectively acted as a fire ladder, guiding the flames higher onto vulnerable pine and oak trees.

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Holding a piece of Indiangrass, Wayne Tyndall, retired state restoration ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, stands in the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. He says that in the ensuing weeks, fresh grasses and blankets of wildflowers will spring from the scorched dirt in a beautiful display of resilience.

When Wayne Tyndall heard about the fire, his main concern was for the area’s old-growth oak trees. Tyndall, who worked at Soldiers Delight as a restoration ecologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for decades until his retirement in 2020, visited one of those trees Friday, which he estimates dates back to the 1800s.

“It had just enough greenbrier around it that it basically exploded,” said Tyndall, who is now a member of the Friends of Soldiers Delight, an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to protecting the area and educating the public.

Biologists like Becker still are investigating how the oak trees fared as a whole in the fire — what with its increased intensity fueled by the invasive species.

“We’ve done some initial surveys, and quite a lot of them are still alive and we expect them to survive,” Becker said. “We just don’t know what the mortality rate is.”

For the past 30 years, Maryland officials have conducted controlled burns in Soldiers Delight, with the goal of destroying the invading plants, preventing wildfires and forcing a rebirth of the natural oak savanna from the ashes.

The natural area is divided into a series of parcels, each of which is burned about every five years, Becker said. But the conditions must be perfect to prevent fire from raging out of control.

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There hasn’t been a controlled burn at Soldiers Delight since last spring, though forestry managers had identified parcels they were hoping to burn next, Smith said. The uncontrolled brush fire may have satiated that need, he said.

A small pine tree shows the signs of a recent brush fire in the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates 321.4 acres of the 1,900 acres of serpentine barrens burned.

Controlled burning was used by Native Americans on Maryland’s serpentine grassland before the arrival of European settlers, mainly as a hunting technique to drive deer and other game into the open. But it also protected the “Great Barrens” from encroaching forest, ensuring the survival of a delicate but exceptional environment.

When Westerners colonized the land and drove out the Native Americans, these controlled burns came to a stop. For many years, the farm animals brought to graze the land kept it locked in a grassland state. But around the 1930s, the grazing ebbed, and in came the conifers intent on shrouding the grasses in deadly shade.

Though controlled burns have returned to Soldiers Delight, climate change has the potential to hinder the effort, Becker said.

The grassy barrens of Soldiers Delight are one of the few environments that are likely to benefit from a warming climate, Becker said, since its plant life thrives in the heat.

But when it comes to prescribed burns, the conditions must be perfectly fire-averse, in order to keep the fire contained.

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“It’s going to mean we need to be a little more flexible, so we can move more quickly and conduct a fire when it’s safe,” Becker said.

Of course, that also means wildfire conditions will become more common due to climate change, what with warmer and drier air.

This spring, “red flag warnings” have arisen repeatedly in Maryland, alerting residents to hot, dry conditions and gusty winds. Firefighters also battled much smaller brush fires in Rosedale and Crownsville last week.

Conditions have been atypically dry and warm. From January through March, the average temperature in Maryland’s North Central area was the second warmest in over a century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The rainfall total was the fifth lowest since 1895.

Kaitlyn Trudeau, a data analyst for Climate Central who studies wildfires, said she has started to expand her evaluations from the West Coast into the East. Conditions in the West remain more dangerous for fires thanks to extended dry periods, but warmer conditions have created more vulnerability for East Coast states, which also frequently feature populated communities situated close to natural areas.

“So really, you have a lot of areas that are at risk, and are increasingly at risk, because of climate change in the eastern part of the country,” Trudeau said.

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Amid the concerns, though, there is reason for joy at Soldiers Delight. In the ensuing weeks, fresh grasses and blankets of wildflowers will spring from the scorched dirt in a beautiful display of resilience, Tyndall said. Seeds that were waiting just below the surface for the opportune moment will germinate and fill the emptiness.

“After all the controlled burning, you’d think we’d be used to it,” he said. “You come out here in a couple weeks and it’s just like: ‘Wow.’”

Baltimore Sun reporter Dillon Mullan contributed to this article.

A runner follows the Serpentine Trail in the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area.

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