Prescribed fire as a management tool - Firewise

What in blazes does prescribed fire mean?

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Historically, fires set by lightning and American Indians kept the prairies from becoming brushlands and forests. Fire kills the above-ground parts of shrubs and small trees. Prairie plants grow more vigorously when built-up plant materials and shade are removed. Spring fire uncovers the soil so it warms sooner, thus extending the growing season.

Prescribed fire is a carefully planned and controlled fire conducted to manage natural areas such as prairie, oak savanna, wetlands, and oak woodlands. It is conducted only under safe conditions. Prescribed fire initially requires experienced help, plus a good working relationship with neighbors and the local fire department. To decide if fire is a useful management tool for your site, ask these questions:

  • Do my goals include restoration or management of a prairie or savanna?
  • Am I interested in managing for grassland wildlife such as meadowlarks, pheasants, or butterflies?
  • Are exotic trees and shrubs (European buckthorn, Tartarian honeysuckle) or aggressive natives (sumac) encroaching and needing control?
  • Does excess dead plant matter build up, mat down, shade out new plants, and reduce vigor of established plants?
  • Are weeds such as Canada thistle, sweet clover, wild parsnip, or leafy spurge a problem?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, follow the steps below.

  1. Learn local burning regulations. People with experience are invaluable. Talk with someone who's burned before and the local DNR. Contact your fire department.
    • Who will help you write a prescription for your burn?
    • Who will help you conduct the burn? Where will you get equipment?
    • Will your neighbors be supportive?
  2. Critically look around the site for possible problems.
    • Do natural firebreaks exist, such as roads, trails, dense woods, and waterways, or will you need to create firebreaks?
    • Are buildings, power lines, refuse and slash piles, phone cable boxes, or wood fence posts in or near the proposed burn area?
    • Will neighbors, homes, cattle barns, or busy roads be affected by smoke?
  3. Look closely at the density of plants and dead materials. They are the fuel for the fire. Are stems standing or matted? Heavy (wood) or light (hollow stems, grasses)? This information predicts how fast and hot the fire could burn,depending upon relative humidity, air temperature, moisture content, wind speed, and direction.
  4. Evaluate the burn. How will you determine if the fire has done what you wanted it to do? What kind of monitoring and evaluation can you realistically do? Notes and photos before and after the burn of which plants are present can be helpful.

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