After experiencing the warmest March on record in the area we had many handicaps to deal with this past burn season. Left in the heats’ wake was the inability to do many woodland burns and small windows of opportunity for prairies, especially those in the early restoration phases. Overall, burns were less intense and more smokey than usual. However, it was a great year if your plans were to stress cool season grasses such as Brome. Above is a picture from our burn on March 29th as published in the Freeport Journal-Standard.
Prairie Works is the source for ecological restoration, land stewardship and consultation services in Northwest Illinois and Southwest Wisconsin. Prairie Works can assist on projects large and small ranging from prairie, woodland and savanna restoration, invasive species control, controlled burning, forestry and bio-engineered erosion control. Prairie Works offers an environmentally friendly and dynamic solution to traditional land use practices and strives to connect people to the natural history of the area.
Archive for the 'prescribed fire' Category
The Spring 2010 burn season has come to an end. It was a nice diversion from the last two burn seasons that provided excessive rainfall making for tough scheduling and sub-par burn behavior.
It was a rather unusual spring. It was very dry, windy and warm. In fact, it was one of the warmest April’s in history making the landscape green up very quickly. Unfortunately, we had some sites green up too quickly thus postponing them to a later date. We also had very low fuel moisture levels and some days recorded very low humidity readings. This had some advantages and disadvantages. It was nice to stress some of the weeds that popped up early this year IE: Brome (Bromus spp.), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Reed Canary Grass (Phalarus arundinacea) just to name a few. I believe we were also able to stress some of our woody plants a bit more this spring due to the early green up as well. In total we completed 33 burns. A new season high for Prairie Works. Enjoy the pictures!
More info on controlled burning: http://www.prairieworksinc.com/services/controlled-burns/
With the 2008 spring burn season now on the horizon this is a good time to get our arms around the monster that is prescribed fire. Prescribed fire (RxFire) or controlled burning is a process that comes up often on this website but has never had a post devoted entirely to it. It is the restoration ecologist’s number one tool for natural areas restoration. But, it can be easy to forget why natural areas require it.
Fire was a common sight in America for millions of years before european settlement. From the eastern seaboard to the forests of the west, our country was frequently “on fire.” It was just as much as part of nature’s cycle as the dropping of leaves in fall. Some areas burned every 50 to 100 years and some areas burned twice annually, but nowhere burned as frequently as the Midwest (with the exception of Florida). Due to the high flammability of oak leaves and prairie grasses, our Midwest ecosytems burned quickly and often. Naturally, lightning strikes caused ignition, but the Native Americans utilized fire for many purposes for thousands of years and are responsible for retaining the prairie, a man-sustained ecosystem.
Indians burned prairies for many reasons, including hunting, to ease travel, stimulate flowering, communication, keep lookout points open, celebration and warfare. It is safe for me to assume that Indians wouldn’t hesitate to burn for the stunning beauty of a vast nighttime burn too. These fires raced across the landscape and could travel hundreds of miles in a day, traversing through woodlands, wetlands, ridges and ravines. The fire was not choosey on what it was going to burn; only large rivers would stop them. One report from the 1840s claims that a fire which started in Peoria, IL, reached Rockford (Rocky Ford) in just two hours!
After the Blackhawk war and the exiting of the Indians, fire intervals were reduced but were not entirely eliminated. Fires from camps often escaped, lightning generated fires continued and locomotives began starting fires as they pushed through the prairies. Soon, agriculture would dominate and wildfires became isolated. The wildfires that were feared by pioneers and homesteaders were still fresh in peoples’ minds and were feared. Our ecosytems began to change at this time as fire retardant agricultural crops were preferred. Throughout the 20th century railroad rights of way were maintained with fire by railroad companies to reduce brush. This is why so many ‘railroad prairies’ exist today.
The first people to duplicate wildfire as a tool for restoring natural areas is debated, but it was most likely Aldo Leopold or some of the University of Wisconsin professors working on Curtis Prairie in the 1940s. This was a good start, but soon after Smokey the Bear was born…
Smokey the Bear is the longest running public service campaign in the United States. A highly successful campaign, it reached out to all Americans and taught them that fire was bad. This public relations stint cancelled all headway to utilize RxFire as a land management tool until the 1970s, although Smokey remains a barrier today.
As our remnant ecosystems became fire intolerant and those remaining were succombing to invasive species, the 1970s and ’80s saw increased use and research of RxFire. In the Midwest prairie preservationists were becoming arsonists, and some of the leading scientists were screaming for reform on the current federal wildfire procedures. The blessing in disguise came in 1988, with the wildfires at Yellowstone National Park. Initially, these fires were reported as destructive and Time called it an “American Tragedy.” In the years following the fire the ecological response was very positive and soon the reputation of wildfires changed to the positive.
Since the early 1990s RxFire started becoming widely accepted among conservationists, especially in the Midwest. Since the upswing began, the study of fire effects on specific ecosystems and its harboring species has been a very interesting discipline. We are still learning a lot about fire effects on plants, insects and animals. However, the results have been conclusive. Because this is an ecosystem where fire occured frequently, the concensus has become: We need more of it if we want our native species to persist and thrive.
After millions of years living with fire, our native species became tolerant and sometimes dependant on fire. We are now hearing many interesting theories and research findings. For instance: Some say our mammals and amphibians gained claws in order to dig holes quickly to create shelter from fires. A study published last year showed that certain prairie seeds require smoke contact in order to germinate. Oak trees will germinate at higher rates when woodlands are burned. We are also learning about using fire to control health issues such as Lyme Disease.
With all of that said, I must note that ecologists are also realizing that too much fire can be detrimental and that different burning techniques and varied timing can offer greater results. For that reason a burn prescription should be conducted by an experienced ecologist that can quantify all of the factors and is aware of the goals for a site. Of course, the safety issues surrounding a prescribed fire are ones that should never be taken lightly either.
As my longest blog to date, it still cannot provide all of the information that surrounds this huge topic. I hope to provide smaller, more detailed posts in the future. In the meantime, when you see controlled burns being conducted this spring, remember that you are seeing the world’s oldest and most effective form of land management.