(Controlled) Burnin' For You

Posted on March 22, 2023

We all like a good fire, though we often think of it as a destructive element, difficult to control and consuming everything in its path. In other words, fire is great as long as it stays nicely contained in your firepit.

But fire can also be extremely beneficial—necessary, even—for a healthy ecosystem. It’s a common and very effective tool in the land management and restoration toolbox…and it’s one we just used this past week when we did a prescribed (or controlled) burn at Dayton Wet Prairie.

Why fire? Well, it’s a natural way to get rid of invasive plant species that have encroached on the ecosystem, and it also helps prevent the spread of diseases and pests that can be harmful to the native plants and animals. A fire rejuvenates the ground by recycling essential nutrients back into the soil, promoting healthy growth of native trees, grasses, and wildflowers. This in turn creates desirable habitat in which native wildlife can thrive. Finally, it reduces hazardous fuels that can build up in the ground over time, protecting surrounding human communities from destructive, uncontrolled fires.

Of course, there is a reason why these beneficial fires are called prescribed burns. A lot of planning and expertise is necessary to keep the fire under control, burning only what and where you want it to! A good burn plan considers lots of factors. Weather is a big one, for obvious reasons. How humid is it, how windy is it? Which direction is the wind blowing (we don’t want a big cloud of smoke hanging over I-94, for example)? We also will consider the level of moisture in the vegetation. It shouldn’t be bone-dry but we probably don’t want to do a burn when everything is fully leafed out and very green either. For this reason, spring and fall are typically good times of year to do a prescribed burn.

Other considerations include what kinds of fuel and ignition types will be used to light the fire? We want it to spread and be sustainable, but also to move slowly enough that we are able to manage it, and to allow any wildlife to get outta Dodge until it’s safely out. Also, what boundaries are we using to ensure it doesn’t spread somewhere we don’t want it to go (like a neighbor’s yard)? These are called control lines, and they can be natural, like a river, or man-made, like a road or a dug out trench line.

After the burn, native vegetation comes surging back surprisingly quickly! So while Dayton Wet Prairie might look kinda charred and ugly now, just give it a month or two… you’ll be amazed at the transformation!