Helping Forests With Fire – A Short Article About Prescribed Burns To Share With Children
Fire is coming! The burn boss and his team lower their face shields and ignite their torches. They begin dripping fire onto the thick oak litter. Leaves and bushes hiss and crackle as flames devour them. This team lights about sixty mini wildfires in forests across Michigan each year.
Why would they light forest fires on purpose? David Mindell, burn boss and forest ecology expert, explains, “From roughly 2200 BC until the 1800’s Native Americans frequently burned the forests of the Midwest. The plants and animals here are adapted to fire.” Now the controlled mini wildfires, called prescribed burns, are taking the place of the fires once lit by Native Americans. Prescribed burns help make the forests healthy again.
Controlling Invading Plants
This day the team works at a park in central Michigan. Back in the 1800’s giant oak trees and colorful wildflowers dotted the landscape here. Over the last 30-50 years new plants such as Japanese barberry and autumn olive– and other invaders from far away places –started taking over the forest, soaking up sunlight and nutrients needed by young oak trees, wildflowers and other native plants.
David Mindell says, “We have found that fire is the best tool to control the growth of invading plants – better than trying to kill them with chemicals or remove them by hand.” He adds, “After the prescribed burn more sunlight will reach the forest floor. Flowers such as trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and toothwort will spring up. Oak saplings will have the sunlight they need to grow into mature trees.” Thick insulating bark protects the older oak trees from the one to three foot flames. If this forest is burned regularly, it will gradually return to the way it was during the 1800s.
Putting Safety First
Are forest animals in danger during a prescribed burn? Many stay safe by running or flying away. Others leap into ponds or burrows (the soil remains cool just few inches under the forest floor). Slower moving animals like snakes and turtles need extra help. Dr. Leslie Kuhn, Coordinator of the Mid-Michigan Stewardship Initiative, recalls, “On the morning of the prescribed burn volunteers and two zoo veterinarians fanned out across the acres that would be burned. We looked for and temporarily move any creatures unable to move faster than the fire.” She also rechecked the woods for injured animals after the fire.
David Mindell also thinks about protecting wildlife and property. He carefully watches the weather and only burns when conditions are safe. He often plans prescribed burns for early spring while many species are still hibernating. If he is working near houses or thinks there may be animals in the area, he can use a slower type of fire called a back fire. (A back fire creeps forward toward the direction the wind blows from. Faster, higher head fires spread in the same direction the wind is blowing). A veterinarian is on call in case of any emergencies.
David Mindell stresses that once the fire is over, park animals will enjoy improved habitat. For example more sunlight will reach the wetlands, allowing grass-like plants called sedges to grow better. The caterpillars of endangered Mitchell’s satyr butterflies feed on sedges and should find more food after the burn. Dwindling numbers of Blanding’s and Eastern box turtles should also go up as these animals seek out sunlit ponds. Hazelnut trees benefit from more sunlight too. The nuts from these trees will provide food for small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks.
Fighting Fire with Fire
In the western United States prescribed burns help forests in another way. There, dry conditions and lightning strikes lead to extreme wildfires – ones that destroy forests and threaten human life. Frequent prescribed burns reduce the amount of fuel, such as leaves, twigs, and dead trees that build up over time on the forest floor. Without so much fuel, wildfires are smaller and easier to control.
A Fire Dies Down and Life Comes Back
The fire in the Michigan park dies down when it reaches the burn break – an area cleared of fuel to help stop the fire. After a long hot day, David and his team rip off their heavy fire protection gear. They gaze up at the towering oaks, satisfied that another patch of forest might be rejuvenated – all thanks to fire.
Barnes, Burton V., and Warren H. Wagner, Jr. Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Gillman, Jeff. How Trees Die: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Forests. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2009.
Maser, Chris, Andrew W. Claridge, and James M. Trappe. Trees, Truffles, and Beasts: How Forests Function. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
“Nature’s Housekeeper.” Wildfire Science. <http://www.smokeybear.com/natures-housekeeper.asp> accessed March 9, 2012.
Demon, Matt, CNSP. Employee of PlantWise Restoration, Ann Arbor, MI. Telephone interview, 2:45 pm on March 21, 2012.
Kuhn, Leslie, Ph. D., Coordinator for Mid-Michigan Stewardship Initiative and Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. In-person interview, 7:30 pm on March 12, 2014 in Haslett, MI.
Mindell, David, M.S., Owner of PlantWise Restoration, Ann Arbor, MI. In-person interview, 9:45 am on March 7, 2014 in Ann Arbor, MI.
“Ingham County Parks & Mid-Michigan Stewardship Initiative” Flyer, a Fireside Chat discussing the upcoming prescribed burn. Dated February 28, 2012