Starting Forest Fires: The Logic Behind Prescribed Burns

By Megan Clute

Imagine driving along the highway, watching the landscape pass you by, when all of a sudden you spot smoke billowing from the treetops. The flames weave in and out of the surrounding brush until the blackened soil is the only thing remaining. To most people, the thought of wildfires and burning forests is quite daunting. The image of trees and brush falling victim to a wall of flames does not typically carry a positive connotation; however, fires of this sort are continuously being started across the state – on purpose.

Burn at Karner Blue Sanctuary in 2008. Photo courtesy of Chris Hoving.

The logic behind this lies within the concept of prescribed/controlled burning. Prescribed burning is a technique used to manage prairie and savanna habitats. In other words, controlled fires are used to stimulate germination and refresh the understory in the designated area. They can also be used to reduce invasive species. This method has been used since the pre-agricultural era to replicate the fires that would naturally occur in the forest to regulate plant and animal life.

Prescribed burns are closely planned and implemented by specially trained individuals, including MNA staff. Local fire departments are notified prior to each burn to promote safety, ensure coordination, and complete local permitting requirements. Temperature, wind speeds, direction, and humidity are some factors that are taken into consideration when choosing to perform a burn, as the wrong combination of weather and fire can prove to be very dangerous and destructive.

Big Valley burn March 22, 2012. Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster.

The MNA conducts prescribed burns at its sanctuaries on a regular basis to manage woody encroachment and promote native plant growth. Recently, there have been burns at Butternut Creek, Big Valley, Sand Creek Prairie, Campbell Memorial, and Lefglen nature sanctuaries. For more information on prescribed burns and how to participate in one, please contact the MNA office at (517) 655-5655.

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