Using Fire as a Tool
Most people associate the month of March with the end of winter and the beginning of spring. However, in the Stewardship Department, we recognize March as the beginning of our prescribed burn season. Prescribed burning is a pre-planned management tool using fire to achieve our management objectives.
Historically, fire was a common feature of the Midwest landscape. Wildfires set by lightning and Native Americans were frequent and unchecked. Many ecosystems developed with fire as an ecological process. By reintroducing fire, we are in essence reintroducing this natural process. The Stewardship Department first burned in 1978 on approximately one acre. Today our current burn areas include over 740 acres of prairie, grassland and woodland habitat. The burns are accomplished before breeding season and each unit is only burned once every three years. The rotation is staggered to ensure that all habitats are not impacted simultaneously. Because of heavy competition from woody species and non-native plants, our prairies have a tendency to become thickets of shrubs and weeds with very little diversity. Non-native plants are not as well adapted and can be kept in check by burning. Conversely, fire stimulates native prairie plants and, coupled with the enriched soil after a burn, native plants regain their competitive edge.
Prescribed fire is the most economical and most effective tool available for managing our native prairie communities. In order to use such a powerful tool, staff coordinating these projects must have extensive training. Four different staff members who serve as “boss” of the fire crew are Certified Prescribed Fire Managers through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Each of these projects must also be accompanied by permits from ODNR, Ohio EPA and the local fire department.
Imperative to the continued success of our program is assembling a well trained and experienced crew. Our burns are conducted by well equipped, fully trained, staff and volunteers. Each crew member must be comfortable with their position and completely clear on their assignment. We use current fuel, weather and topography information to calculate the fire behavior before lighting each burn unit. In order to conduct a burn, all of these factors have to be within a range specified in our prescription, or “burn plan.” Because of our expertise, we have trained, as well as assisted, other agencies with their burn programs.
The burned areas green up very rapidly. Solar heat, absorbed by the blackened surface, warms the soil quickly. Plants respond by vigorously sprouting and sending up shoots. This is another of the many benefits provided by prescribed burning. The results are diverse native plant and animal communities that thrive in our natural areas.
Scott Peak, Natural Resource Technician