Prescribed fire as a management tool
What in blazes does prescribed fire mean?
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:
Could I use fire as a management tool?
- 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 need to be controlled?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 depending upon relative humidity, air temperature, moisture content, wind speed and direction.
- 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.
Novice advice: How to Manage Small Prairie Fires Wayne Pauly. 1982. This booklet explains to a novice the steps an experienced burner goes through to conduct a controlled burn. Available for $4 from the Friends of Dane County Parks, 4318 Robertson Rd., Madison, WI 53714.
Find technical documents on fire's effect on wildlife, specific plant species, woodlands and marshes, air quality, nutrient cycling, or soil in Bibliography of Fire Effects and Related Literature Applicable to the Ecosystems and Species of Wisconsin. 1995. Technical Bulletin No. 187. Department of Natural Resources, PO BOX 7921 Madison, WI 53707.