Most experts believe that, before settlement, any single acre of prairie probably burned every four or five years. This burning rotation was due either to fires caused by lightning, or fires set by Native Americans to drive game or improve local pastures to entice game to move in. Healthy prairies seem to thrive on this four or five year cycle. Ideally, wildlife managers would match that burn cycle for a patch of grass and allow it to rest for three or four years between burns. Occasionally, we burn a single unit repeatedly over several years to help control undesirable plants.
Burns are performed by District staff trained and certified in wildland fire fighting. Local fire departments, law enforcement agencies and state natural resource offices are informed of the burn. A prescribed burn is a managed fire conducted under a special set of guidelines for weather, and safety. This "prescription" is designed prior to the burn, and is critical to achieve the desired outcome. Most burning on the District is done in April and May on days when conditions meet the prescription set forth for a safe burn, and which will result in the desired habitat management and hazardous fuel reduction effects. Humidity level, wind speed, and wind direction are among the factors that must be correct for the burn to occur. Burning may also be done in the fall.
Every year many portions of the Districts' management units are selected for burning. Each unit is bordered by plowed land, developed fire breaks, waterways, or roads that enable the fire to be contained. This year, District staff plan to burn approximately 6,000 acres within the five county District. The burn area is ignited by hand using a drip torch. District fire engines with trained fire fighters are on site to ensure the fire stays controlled. The Wetland District has its own fire engines, pumps, all-terrain vehicles, and other equipment necessary to safely conduct burns and respond to wildfires as needed.
Fire removes dry, dead plant matter that has built up over the years. Periodic burning reduces the hazardous fuel build up on our units, opens up space for new plant growth, and provides better cover and food for wildlife. Burning helps restore and maintain many plant habitats. The burn allows nutrients locked up in the dried plants to be returned to the soil to be used by new plants. The increased seed production of native grasses that follow a burn enhances fall seed harvest used for new prairie restorations.
Wildlife management always involves tradeoffs. There is no decision that is best for every species of wildlife. Burn in the spring and you will destroy some nests but have better nesting cover in future years. Burn in the fall and you lose winter cover for some species but you improve the grass the following spring. Don't burn at all and you save money and work in the short term but lose prairie habitats and wildlife, creating a long term expense.
How does the fire help the ecosystem?Through habitat management programs, such as prescribed burning, the Wetland Management District is restoring the ecosystem that existed in this area prior to European settlement. The native plants (and wildlife that depend on these habitats) are adapted to fire and depend on periodic burning for their continued existence.How do plants survive a fire?Many plants in the tall grass prairie and wetland habitats managed by the District are adapted to fire. Their deep root system allows them to re-sprout quickly after a fire passes.
What happens to the wildlife?Most animals remain very calm during a fire. Many ground dwelling animals find shelter by burrowing under a log or staying in an underground burrow. In wooded areas, some animals go into tree cavities. Animals that run and birds which fly usually leave the area ahead of the fire. Very few animals are unable to escape the fire. Certain insect species are vulnerable to fire, and managers are careful to burn only a portion of these units in any given year to prevent impacting local populations of these species.
Birds that may have started nesting will lose their nest. These birds will start new nests within a few days. The improved habitat that results from the use of prescribed burning is a great benefit to wildlife. Burning creates more vigorous, younger cover and also increases food availability by stimulating seed production. What about the smoke?If you live near a waterfowl production area, you may see us burning or see the results of our burning. All of our fires are carefully planned and controlled to cause as little inconvenience or trouble to local residents. We prefer to burn when the prevailing winds carry smoke away from homes and busy roads. Occasionally despite our best efforts, some smoke crosses a road or passes by a rural home. We work hard to minimize such problems and are prepared with road signs to warn drivers of smoke along roads. At times we will detour traffic around smoke impacted areas to provide for public safety.
You can learn more about prescribed fire by downloading the documents below:Burning to Benefit Wildlife (421 KB Adobe pdf file)Wildland Fire Management in the Midwest (575 KB Adobe pdf file)
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