The last prairie burn for this season at Eagle Bluff Environmental Center was conducted this week by employees Colleen Fohnrenbacher, Jenna Moon, Joe Deden, and volunteers Joel Mielke and Jerry Cleveland. Prairie burns are an annual event at Eagle Bluff and other locations in the area. They are conducted to maintain the health of the prairies and slow down the incursion of trees and other invasive plants into the prairies.
Prairie plants are adapted to drought and fire with deep roots and ability to resprout after burning. Periodic burning also gives a shot of extra nutrients to some prairie plants and actually speeds their regrowth. Fall burns can speed warming in the spring because the darkened landscape warms up faster and combines with the added nutrients to enable earlier germination of seeds.
Eagle Bluff’s prairies are divided into sections so that burns can be conducted more safely, and not all of the prairies are burned in one year. Scott Leddy, a prairie specialist from Rushford, says this is a good way to preserve species. Insects and plants that are rare live in small areas of the prairies, and burning the entire area in one season could wipe them out.
When designing prairies, people are wise to make use of physical features to make prairie burns safer and less labor intensive. Roads, water features and clear trails can be used as permanent barriers to fire. That will save time and labor when preparing for future burns.
Primary factors affecting fire spread are fuel load, air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and soil moisture. Starting down wind and lighting the fire against the wind and just in front of a firebreak allows the fire to burn slowly and controls the speed of the fire while keeping the heat near the ground which also increases the chance of killing unwanted weed seeds.
Dressing appropriately for this type of work is important. Synthetic clothing such as polyester or acrylic should not be worn because excessive heat can melt these fibers onto the skin, where it can stick and cause painful burns. Wool or cotton are acceptable fabrics to wear, along with leather gloves to protect the hands, a scarf to protect the face, and a hat to protect the head from falling embers. People who do a lot of burning or who fight forest fires wear fireproof clothing much like professional firefighters.
Essential tools for prairie burns include water in tanks on a truck or in a backpack sprayer, swatters for rubbing out small flames, backpack blowers for blowing out small flames, and drip torches for lighting the fires.
Lastly, consider what neighbors and passers by will think when they see the smoke from the fire. Well before the fire is lit, the neighbors should be called and told about the upcoming burn so they can take the laundry in and close windows and so they don’t call the fire department. It’s also a good idea to alert neighbors who might have animals nearby or in confinement buildings. When you call the toll free number on your burn permit, you will enter the number given on your burn permit to activate the permit. This activation will automatically notify the fire department and law enforcement that you are activating your burning permit. (You did get a permit, didn’t you?! Don’t light a fire without it!!!)
Because of the preparation and organization required to do a safe prairie burn, Eagle Bluff helps complete a limited number of burns on private prairies because they believe in the important role that prairies and open space plays for our ecological community.