Our current understanding of North American history is that fire played an enormous role in ecological communities across the continent, especially in the Great Plains and Midwest. There were wildfires started by lightning, yes, but much of it was anthropogenic. That is, it appears that the continents’ first people used fire on a regular basis for a myriad of reasons.
I already wrote a piece on prescribed fire for our quarterly journal, Word Gathering (p. 8 of Winter 2016), so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.
Suffice it to say that it took 6 years of higher education in the natural sciences and months of work in the field before this reality truly sunk in (I’m a slow learner): humans used prescribed fire as a pretty heavy-handed tool that not only allowed them to flourish but, for the most part, was a main driver in the the flourishing and biodiversity of the systems around them. It was not “living lightly on the land,” the mythic notion of Indians I absorbed from my public education. Instead of our current extractive economy that degrades ecosystems (the cause of an ongoing, massive extinction event), management by fire was largely synergistic and life-giving. From a biomass and biodiversity perspective, prairies, savannas, and open woodlands are probably the most productive ecosystems on the planet. They don’t last without fire. (We will have to eventually discuss grazing as well… save that for another day).
The photo below shows the pre-European-settlement fire return interval across the continental U.S.
We are looking to expand our use of prescribed fire. My goal is to slowly increase the acres burned each year, building up our equipment, staff and volunteers. Last fire season (a brief period of certain conditions in late fall and early spring) we burned on 3 days, covering 7 burn units and 20 acres.
As with most things, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of work because the window for safe and effective burning is relatively short. We have a lot of small patches with a lot of edges… edges where the fire needs to be stopped, or where we run into fencerows. Fire lanes must be established and then maintained in order to form a boundary to stop the fire, as well as allow safe and rapid passage of the fire crew.
My intern (Meredith) and I were out the other day working on fire lanes on a small, 2 acre oak woodland. Now, when most people hear “fire” and “forest” they picture large landscapes out west and a crown fire roaring through a canopy of pine trees. But in the Midwest, we’re talking about a ground fire that consumes only leaf litter (usually oak leaves). The only casualties are typically sapling shrubs and trees. This increases light availability on the ground, which increases the quantity of herbaceous plants.
This particular little woods is bordered by crop fields and a hay field, but also some fencing, which posed some logistical challenges when we burned it in March 2017. We attached a metal saw blade on the end of a quality gas-powered “weed-eater,” which made quick work of small-diameter trees and shrubs.
Meredith followed after me and painted the stumps with concentrated herbicide. Keep it simple! The applicator is nothing but a sponge zip-tied to a broom handle. There is no overspray of chemical to other plants. It gets absorbed into the woody plant and kills it. It’s quick, economical, and achieves our management goals.
We also took out several small shrubs and trees in the middle of the woods, which were growing quickly, as the property had not been burned in recent memory. We are managing for an open oak woodland. Without fire, grazing, or some other disturbance, the forest becomes thick and dark, with few plants growing at the ground level. Not necessarily “bad” or “good,” but it’s not our goal for this piece of land.
The goal is to invest now in the “heavy-lifting” of establishing fire lanes, removals of invasive species, etc so that these individual units can be maintained by a fire every couple years.
One last photo. A large, multi-stemmed bush honeysuckle or Autumn olive plant is not usually killed by prescribed fire; their leaves quickly decompose and don’t allow a fire to be carried. These have to be removed manually. But smaller sprouts do get “top-killed” by a fire and will re-sprout from the roots the following year.
The top-killing gives us some precious time. In one growing season, this plant won’t be able to sprawl and create copious amounts of bird-dispersed seeds, which would exacerbate the problem. In the meantime, fire is stimulating the soil seed bank and fire-tolerant plants are going to start competing with it. As long as fire is used continuously, I can address more urgent concerns (i.e. removal of the large, seed-bearing plants) and return later to spray or pull these weakened plants as resources allow.
Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough. Fall will be upon us before we know it, and I have more prep work to do!