Taking Prescribed Fires off the “back burner” at River Bend Nature Center

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Or at least, that’s the idea.

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2017 shapes up to be a successful year for prescribed burns at River Bend Nature Center. This grassland/forest mix behind the interpretive center was one of the first locations burned this last Saturday.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

In a world where fire is often seen as a danger to life and property, it’s easy to forget that fire is actually a natural part of a healthy ecosystem, and that in some cases, it is necessary for the survival of native plants and animals. This leads many to ask how this could be possible, when the landscape after a fire looks as far from lively as you can get: shriveled and blackened grass, charred stumps, and an ashy sky. It doesn’t exactly look appealing. It takes a closer examination to discover the real benefit of allowing fire to move through our prairies and forests.

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Immediately following a fire, the ground is left dry and charred. But it won’t stay like this for long.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Underneath the burned ground, an incredible change is taking place—nutrients that were once trapped inside plants on the surface are now recycled back into the soil. In this way, nutrients are not locked away, but become available for new plants to utilize. This becomes especially true in prairie ecosystems, where grasses are prevalent, dying back every winter and holding nutrients in their dead stalks above the soil line. Perhaps even more amazing after a fire, some seeds buried in the ground begin to stir and show signs of life after what could have been years of dormancy.

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Large, healthy trees remain undamaged when a prescribed burn moves past. The removal of competition around it will even help it to thrive.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

In some cases, seeds are even coated with flammable oils to encourage hotter fires. These fire-dependent species require high heat for germination to be triggered, when otherwise it would not occur at all. Plants developed such traits in order to exploit the lack of competition following a fire. With other species removed, new plants that germinate quickly afterwards do not have to fight for sunlight or water with any nearby neighbors. A famous example of this is the Lodgepole pine, whose cones are sealed with a special resin that melts away in the high heat of fire and releases the seeds. There are many ways that plants have evolved to make use of fire—species may rely on fire, smoke, or a combination of both in order to prosper.

1Source: http://www.austintexas.gov/rxfire

This knowledge flies in the face of years of misunderstanding—that ecosystems are always moving towards a state of equilibrium, where nature and all of its components end in harmony. The reality is far different—nature not only utilizes, but requires frequent “disturbances”, whether this be in the form of fire, flood, or landslide. And so rather than thinking of a forest or prairie as a linear progression towards an endpoint, it is better to think of them as a cycle, where plants grow, die, are recycled back into the system, and begin again. This mindset is known as ecological succession—old growth forests will inevitably become disturbed sites where new, younger individuals will emerge and age. In the end this results in a healthier ecosystem, which is easy to see when comparing pre-settlement forests to modern forests. Before human intervention, forests often had fewer but larger and healthier trees. Now, forests have far more trees, but they are overcrowded, smaller, and generally less healthy.

 

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Source: https://www.cs.hmc.edu/~sweil/bio52/3/fireeco.html

 

Ironically, it is the modern, “protected” forests that pose the greatest threat, both to humans and wildlife. When fire is prevented, forests mature beyond the point of being prosperous—food/water amounts and space lessen, and wildlife suffers as a result. Additionally, dead plant matter builds up, which creates more fuel. Eventually, the amount of fuel present in the forest may allow for a larger, hotter, and more dangerous fire to occur.

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Prescribed burns prevent fuel from building up in a forest or prairie ecosystem–the result is more frequent but smaller fires that are less likely to get out of control.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

And so it all comes down to word choice. Many of us may remember the famous Smoky the Bear phrase “only YOU can prevent forest fires”. This was a great and catchy slogan for a world where fire could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, both to buildings and natural areas. But as we began to learn more about this land we were trying to “protect” by putting out every fire we could find, scientists began to realize that our “help” was actually causing harm. And so rather than advertising a negative image on “forest fires”, Smoky now reminds us to stop “wild fires” instead—that is, fires that are unintentional or out of control in a region where lives and property could be lost. This change of heart helped reduce the misconception that all fire is bad—and that any forest or prairie fire is a villain in an ecological sense.

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Nutrients are recycled back into the soil when dead vegetation is allowed to burn. Even greener patches along the river are able to be burned, as Emily Greger, Resource Manager, helps it along with a torch.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

But what does this have to do with River Bend? There is one more benefit from fire that River Bend will be utilizing very soon, and that is to use fire as a tool to remove invasive species. While hours of work every year go into removing invasive species from the property, pulling, cutting, and treating, it is not the most effective way to prevent the spread of non-natives. Fire works much faster and far more thoroughly than any “by hand” methods of removal, making it the most effective tool at our disposal. And while historically, prescribed fires have been used sporadically and on small sections of land, we plan to increase the area covered, and also begin burning on a regular rotation. One burn is not enough to bring a habitat back to “pristine” condition—it takes several burns in addition to other treatments, and the entire process might go on for years. However, in the end, after a lot of planning and work, the goal is that eventually we will be left with forests and prairies that resemble pre-settlement—healthy ecosystems filled with a large variety of native plants and animals.

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Visitors can expect to see signs of burning through the end of April, and sites on the list of potential burns are the rain garden, the large prairie by the Interpretive Center, ditches along Rustad Road, the gravel pit, and the prairie on Teepee Tonka.

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Tall grasses burn readily–moving very quickly across a prairie landscape. A “back burn” will prevent fire from spreading to undesired locations.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Dates and times of burns are all weather dependent, and all burning will cease before May in order to protect ground nesting birds. Helping us with this process is the Faribault Fire Department, who has been donating their time and equipment for decades.

4357Fire creeps up to the banks of the Straight River which acts as a perfect fire break.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

And while we cannot ask for volunteers from the public to help with burns, there are several things you can do to help make this process as simple and safe as possible:

Take note of any and all signs posted notifying the public about potential burns. When burning, there will be a large sign posted by the park entrance asking that people stay away from the areas that are being burned, both for their safety as well as the safety of the staff—distractions can lead to dangerous situations. Another way that you can help is by attending several events that River Bend has coming up—the first is an OWLS (Older Wiser Livelier Seniors) presentation given by River Bend’s Resource Manager Emily Greger. The presentation will focus on invasive species, going beyond buckthorn and touching on lesser known species and methods for controlling them. Additionally, River Bend hosts Restoration work days where members of the public can come out and assist with a variety of restoration projects, including removal of invasive species. For more information on these programs and other opportunities please see our website: http://www.rbnc.org/

OWLS – https://riverbend.z2systems.com/np/clients/riverbend/event.jsp?event=1631&

Restoration Work Day – https://riverbend.z2systems.com/np/clients/riverbend/event.jsp?event=1641

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Fire will drastically change the appearance of a landscape, but in just a few weeks, this same location picture in both photos will be green with new and healthier growth.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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