Prescribed Burns for Healthy Habitat

Post written by Parker Maynard, Land Stewardship Technician. Post updated June 7 – we accidentally posted a version that wasn’t quite finished last Friday!

Volunteers and natural areas stewardship staff ignite the fields at Bear Creek Nature Park (Photo by Cam Mannino)

I can’t think of a more interesting and exciting way to start the stewardship season than by learning how to light up controlled fires to maintain the beauty of Oakland Township parks. Throughout late April and early May, the other Stewardship Crew members and I were involved in a unique hands-on training experience by participating in several prescribed burns. With the help of volunteers and contractors, areas within several parks underwent changes that will maintain and improve habitat and help native species thrive. As someone who has long been interested in the process of prescribed burns but has never had the chance to participate in one, I can easily say this was one of the most memorable stewardship activities I’ve participated in.

Learning Before Burning

Before I jumped into the action, I was able to learn about the purpose of such an intense process, as well as how to safely utilize and control fires. Through this training, I learned that fire is a regular and beneficial part of the natural cycle of many landscapes, from keeping open prairies free of woody and invasive species to maintaining fire-resistant oak forests. Although it seemed surprising, I learned that fire had historically found its way into these areas again and again, through Native Americans intentionally burning land or lightning striking the ground. In recent history, wildfires have been suppressed, making these habitat types more of a rarity. Fortunately, Oakland Township is working to help preserve what remaining prairie and open oak forests are present in our parks by administering these burns.

Comparison of a burned and unburned field at Bear Creek (Photo by Cam Mannino)

After learning the basics, I was able to observe a prescribed burn in person at Watershed Ridge Park with the rest of the Stewardship Crew. When we arrived at the park, we introduced ourselves the contractors that were going to be conducting the burn, who were busy prepping the site. The site preparation process involved creating a nonflammable boundary around the burn area called a “burn break”. Leaves and other flammable materials were cleared to form a portion of this boundary, but an existing wetland and farm field were also utilized as natural burn breaks since they weren’t likely to carry fire. After all preparations were complete, the burn crew gathered and was briefed on the plan We reviewed a map of the burn area, discussed wind direction and expected weather, talked about noteworthy topography, and went through the ignition and containment plan.

Into the Fire

After more observation and hands-on training, I was excited to be able to participate in a burn myself at Bear Creek Nature Park. This time, the burn would be conducted with a few volunteers, so my role was more integral to the process. Before we began, everybody suited up in proper personal protective equipment (PPE), which included a fire-resistant shirt, pants, gloves and a hardhat. Since I had never actively walked through a burning fire, I was wary as to how “fireproof” these clothes really were. However, I eventually felt safer after the fire began and I was walking in and out of burned areas with ease. We first ignited a slow backing fire by lighting the area against the prevailing wind direction with drip torches. These tools are handheld tanks with a wick to ignite the fuel mixture as it drips onto the ground. I like to think of it as a reverse watering can that pours fire instead of water. After I had gotten some practice with a drip torch, I began feeling more “in control” of the burn.

Lighting an area on fire is one thing, but it is just as important to make sure that the fire is put out afterwards. When we completed our burn, the crew spent a while putting out any actively smoking logs and other materials with backpack water sprayers.

Results of the Burn

So, what are the results of such an intense process? It is difficult to predict exactly how a landscape will react to a fire, but several changes will surely take place. The burning process helps to break down and get rid of dead organic matter and recycle nutrients back into the soil. When a burn takes place in the spring, many perennial plants are in a dormant stage and will be minimally impacted by the fire. Other plants may utilize this newly barren landscape as a chance to grow without as much competition. Plants that are adapted to these cyclical fires will be right at home in this newly created habitat as they are more accustomed to fire, whereas many invading species are not. In some cases, seeds may be spread manually in order to encourage specific species to thrive. The Stewardship Crew spent some time hand-spreading seeds and Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide utilized a tractor to spread seeds in areas that had been previously burned at Bear Creek.

Burned area at Charles Ilsley Park with fresh new growth a few weeks after the controlled burn

About a week after our burn at Charles Ilsley Park, I was surprised to see how green the burned fields had become in such a short time. I am especially interested to see how the wet prairie along the Paint Creek Trail will react to the recent burn that took place there, as it hosts many unique fire-tolerant plant species.

A robin looking for food after a burn (Photo by Cam Mannino)

Before participating in these prescribed fires, I was very curious as to how animals would react to the process. During a few of the burns, I observed turkeys, songbirds, and snakes fleeing from the burn area. It was clear that just as plants had evolved to withstand wildfires, many of these critters have as well. Even insects could simply burrow into the ground to evade the danger of fire. I realized that this emigration was only a short-term effect as shortly after the burn was complete, I began to see birds and even a Blanding’s Turtle return to area. I knew that the preservation of uncommon plant communities through burning will in turn help attract rare insects, birds, and other fauna to the area in time.

A Blanding’s Turtle returning to a burned field at Charles Ilsley Park

If you are interested in volunteering to participate in a future prescribed burn, there are annual trainings held in February. See Prescribed Ecological Burn Program | Natural Areas Notebook (oaklandnaturalareas.com) for more details.

3 thoughts on “Prescribed Burns for Healthy Habitat

  1. Pingback: Unique Wetland Communities Along the Paint Creek Trail | Natural Areas Notebook

  2. Parker, a thorough and well-written account of prescribed burns from start to finish. And I really like the dramatic photos you chose to illustrate each step. People should find this really useful in answering questions that always come up about this important restoration process. Thanks so much for contributing this piece!

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