Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

A wildfire to keep things wild: An inside look at a prescribed burn

We see scary images on TV of giant wildfires raging through residential neighborhoods in the mountainous terrain of California.  Destruction and death blaze up the night, as news stations keep their ratings high with 24 hour coverage of the sky-hi flames.

Yet wildfires are rarely wild.  Despite what the above video may imply, we actually did start the fire…and environmentally… this is not always a bad thing.

I am going to tell you about…or rather…SHOW you a common habitat management technique commonly used by conservationists all over the United States: the prescribed burn.

I participated in a prescribed burn back in November of 2010 at an oak-savanna nature preserve in Northwest Indiana.  An oak savanna is a transition area between eastern hardwood forests and open grasslands that is structured as a tall-grass prairie interspersed with clumps of oaks and other trees.  The historical range of oak-savanna habitats occurred mainly in the mid-west at the interface of the humid continental and continental arid (dry) climate areas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Historical distribution of Midwest oak-savanna landscapes. Map copied from V. Nuzzo, 1994. 1994 Proceedings: North American Conference on Savannas and Barrens. United States Environmental Protection agency. Retrieved 31 December 2010 from http://www.epa.gov/ecopage/upland/oak/oak94/Proceedings/Nuzzo.html

In the plains states and just east of the Rocky Mountains, the dry and arid climate would prevent trees and forests from establishing themselves in undeveloped areas.  However, in most of the Midwest and most of the shaded area in Figure 1, the climate is wet and trees and woodland areas quickly reestablish themselves in uninhabited areas.  Lighting strikes could hypothetically start a fire and keep the woodland areas as open prairie, but thunderstorms in the Midwest are almost always accompanied by heavy rain.  Wind could knock down forests and trees, but only on a localized scale.  Fire is the only known way to keep forests from succeeding in this region…yet the climate it too wet to maintain wildfires randomly.  How then, did this once vast oak-savanna prairie come to be.

For thousands of years, Native Americans (Indians) burned large swaths of land regularly to attract game and to grow food.  Today, wildlife managers are returning to some of these ancient practices and are modifying them as necessary in what is now a highly developed, populated region.  The photo series that follows will give you the inside scoop of what goes on in a prescribed burn, sometimes euphemistically referred to as a controlled burn.

I was fortunate enough to help with a prescribed burn with the Nature Conservancy at this park in Griffith, Indiana.  The park was of course closed that day to visitors, and the animals in the park were (hopefully) unharmed.  In the spring, new plants will come up, and the prairie areas of this park will look spectacular.

Photo A: A nice hot fire helping to clear out woody plants and invasive species from a pristine prairie area. Photo by Coco Ventiruin. November 2010. Lake County Parks. Lake County, Indiana.

Photo B. A wildlife manager lights up a section of prairie in his burn-proof outfit using a gas drip-torch. Photo by Coco Ventiruin. November 2010. Lake County Parks. Lake County, Indiana.

Photo C: The park entrance road (hence the speed-limit sign) was closed to visitors, and acted has a burn break to prevent the fire from spreading to other areas of the park (since asphalt is not easily flammable). Photo by Coco Ventiruin. November 2010. Lake County Parks. Lake County, Indiana.

Photo D: In order to keep the fire under control, an ATV equipped with a hose was driven around the burn area to ensure that the fire did not spread to undesired areas (such as power line corridors). Photo by Coco Ventiruin. November 2010. Lake County Parks. Lake County, Indiana.

Photo E: Cool and dry conditions allowed the fire to produce nice hot and tall flames! Photo by Coco Ventiruin. November 2010. Lake County Parks. Lake County, Indiana.

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