fire season

The 2019 spring fire season has been off to a slow start. Some years, the stars just don’t align… by stars I mean the proper elements of humidity, sun, wind, and available staff and volunteers.

(To see previous posts on fire, click in the search field on the right-hand side of the page and type “fire”).

However, we did get two burn days last week, and we covered Moontree, a cattail marsh, and a fen that had been used as a pasture.

First, Moontree:

I like to say that prescribed fire is 95% boredom and preparation followed by and 5% excitement (and it’s only exciting when I know the hard prep work has paid off as planned). Some new volunteers anxious to see a spectacle are a little underwhelmed, once they realize what it actually entails. The photos I’m posting don’t quite capture it either… the planning, phone calls, checking weather, fixing gear, raking fire lanes, etc. After reading this ecologist’s musings on portraying prescribed fire to the public, I’m trying to be careful to not create misunderstanding.

We had a neighbor come help us burn. We’ve been talking about working together on habitat projects across our property boundaries. This is something we are really excited about as we look at the long-term prospects of building a stewardship culture in the area. Getting together for meals, for burns, and just to talk about the latest phenological happenings is important to coalition building. Thanks Ryan!

And, of course, Sr. Mary was out working too!

We like diversity of habitats, diversity of species, and diversity of disturbance patterns. With that in mind, we only burn a portion of each habitat each season, leaving an unburned section adjacent. Fire does have the potential to kill overwintering insect eggs, and the odd rodent or rabbit. Keeping our management activities diverse helps ensure that populations are sustained from year to year.

You can see in the photo below that we have a burned section next to an unburned one:

Not the best photo, but I heard some Sandhill Cranes flying over so I crouched low and got a photo of both fire and cranes with my phone:

Next over to the cattails. I’m hoping to get the drone up soon to get some aerial photos to see exactly what sections caught fire. Cattails are trickier to light than one might think… the clumps of course leaves can be far enough apart to prevent fire from spreading. Fortunately, the wind was just right to achieve our objectives here. We had just come off some very cold weather, so I was able to stand on solid ice (over only 12-18″ of water) to get this photo:

Here’s a shot of our great team:

The fen was a unit that I had been waiting to do. But we needed to learn how to work together and communicate as a burn team first. Then came the grant for prescribed fire equipment. A couple years of experience, then we were ready!

The picture below shows a little bit of the complex hydrology that makes this place special. It does hold some rainwater, but a lot of this is bubbling up from underground. These areas are a priority for conservation of unique plants, as well as maintaining a uncontaminated drinking water supply.

Here’s a video showing the breadth of this burn unit. This was after most of the more careful and tedious work was done around the roadsides, which we do slowly to minimize the smoke that goes over the road.

Some things are unveiled with a fire. You can see here the hummocks from the Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta). These micromounds 12-18″ in height are part of the structural diversity we like to see in the landscape. At the scale of an insect or a small mammal, it’s significant! You can read more about this sedge here.

Here’s one final image I stumbled upon one morning about a week after the Moontree fire. It’s the base of a perennial grass. I walked by in the exact moment that the sun was rising and burning off the hoarfront from this and other features on the landscape

It seemed to be an apt image of springtime in the Midwest. Here, and not here. Glorious rays of warm sun followed by another snow shower.

The word that came to mind was liminal.

Dark-Hard-Tense-Tight-Cold // \\ Warm-Loose-Fluid-Soft-Light

We are there in the middle.

Hoarfrost disintegrating off last year’s Bee Balm flower heads

the Marshall County flood, one year later

Well, it’s been one year since the Big Flood of 2018. We have seen a lot of retrospectives in the news and social media.

The talk I had prepared in February 2018 on 150 years of ecological change in Marshall County was, ironically, cancelled because of widespread flooding. The Yellow River, which is the main aquatic artery of Marshall County, crested at 17.65 on 2/22/18. This bested the record of 17.10 ft on 10/12/54. I posted some early photos and videos here. Here’s some additional video that was published later.

I followed up with a more detailed piece on hydrology and human land use, and how they combine to affect flood patterns.

I remember driving along US 30 on March 6 and being stunned and the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes lined up at the small lakes that emerged in so many farm fields. It was the slightly glimpse back at the Everglades of the North that existed for thousands of years before European agriculture.

As soon as the waters receded, I took my family exploring at River Park Square in downtown Plymouth. The flood had swept away the wooden frames holding the raised beds of the community garden, leaving the garden soil & roots. Can you see the long stripes of sand on the down-stream side of the beds? They are not from the beds themselves. I presume as the water flowed around and over the beds (away from the vantage point of the camera), the water was slowed, which made it drop sediment in neat lines. It felt like we were at a Lake Michigan beach!

The flood stimulated a massive community effort across businesses, government, non-profits, and faith communities. We know from human history that it is often times of larger community crises that we suddenly rise and form new links and alliances, to reach out towards our neighbors in ways that we just don’t normally do on a day-to-day basis.

After the immediate clean up came the hard slog of recovery. Which homes and businesses could be repaired? By whom? With what resources? Fund-raising efforts were made. Benefit concerts were planned. Work teams were organized (The Center at Donaldson hosted at least a few). FEMA was consulted.

I can’t say that I was involved in the recovery efforts, but from talking with those involved, it was a lot of work. Over 200 families were affected. The situation was compounded for those in poverty, already on a financial edge, as well as undocumented immigrants who needed relief but were hesitant to work with government agencies.

I’m grateful to the many government workers, volunteers, and first responders that had to react to this crisis. I’m not so good at that, other than filling a few sandbags until my weak back starts complaining. As an ecologist, I’ve been trying to think about the longer-term questions of inhabiting our little space in the Yellow River watershed… what works, what doesn’t, and how we can build resilient social-ecological communities.

As old and worn as this line gets, I’m never going to tire of saying it… our children will inherit the world crafted by our decisions. Our moral responsibility is to consider what inter-generational justice looks like in our common home. (Photo from Feb 19)

First, it starts with understanding. We can educate ourselves about the Headwaters Yellow River Watershed, the land that drains to Plymouth and determines flood patterns in the city. A watershed management plan was recently conducted and is a great starting point.

We know at a societal level, we are generally underestimating flood risk. “It won’t happen to me” is just human. We build homes in floodplains, along hurricane-battered coasts with rising seas, and in deserts starved for fresh water. Our brains aren’t good at calculating low-probability, high-impact events. (Please don’t do an audit of my house for working smoke detectors, kitchen-rated fire extinguishers, radon, earthquake insurance, etc!!). We need to stay vigilant and visualize the true cost of being caught unprepared.

I stumbled upon the 2014 Flood Inundation Maps for the Yellow River, written by the U.S. Geological Survey (here’s a shout out to all those PhDs, technicians, and office assistants slogging away in government cubicles doing incredibly important and often overlooked work in the interest of the common good). They modeled the impacts of a “100-year flood” on the City of Plymouth. This flood would discharge 3,800 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) and be around 15.5 ft flood stage. The actual flood in 2018 was around 17.6 ft flood stage and around 5,800 cfs of water.

That’s why I cringed when I saw editorials in the press writing about a “64-year-flood” (It had been 64 years since the flood of 1954). This misunderstanding is understandable for the general public, but leaders should really try to communicate the risks accurately.

As was explained in the South Bend Tribune, we had experienced something more like a “500 year flood,” which means – according to our best scientific understanding of current conditions – there is a 1-in-500 chance of a flood of that magnitude each year. A “64-year flood” has a 1-in-64 chance of occurring each year. But nature doesn’t space out these events evenly… the dice are rolled each season, and we need to plan accordingly.

Anyway, here’s a great explainer from the USGS, done clearer than I.

Flood intervals are partly a function of climate, and climate change is throwing a wrench in our calculations. That is, we have to prepare our societies and infrastructure for the climate of the rest of the 21st century, not the 20th.

Purdue University is slowly releasing portions of a Climate Change Impacts Assessment. In the Climate chapter, scientists write:

Extreme rainfall events, defined as having a daily rainfall total in the top 1 percent of all events, have increased over the last century and are expected to continue to do so. Heavy downpours contribute to soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which affects both water quality and crop productivity. These events can also overwhelm wastewater systems and create challenges for flood-control infrastructure… In Indiana, climate change will mostly affect extreme temperatures, precipitation extremes that affect stormwater, and annual peak flows that determine river flooding.

In other words, gird your loins for more of where that came from! We are seeing more precipitation as intense rainfall events, instead of spread out over several showers. This increases flood risk.

Second, what is our response? Knowing all this, what have we done with our year’s time as a municipality and as a county? What actually can be reasonably expected, and what is simply out of our control?

On the proactive side, River Park Square in Plymouth originated after the purchase and demolition of several homes and businesses in the flood plain. Public green space is a great use of a floodplain in an urban context. The venue is used for everything from a farm market to concerts and festivals. It’s a highlight of our town.

However, I also heard from a friend that there were several structures within the floodplain that were damaged by a flood in 2008 and were rehabbed by volunteers. They flooded again in 2018. Tens of thousands of dollars were again poured into them again last year.

Some 137 homes were damaged in Plymouth. Most of these were repaired (and let me say that I’m certainly not in a position to tell someone what to do with their home). Some were not repaired, and the city is applying for FEMA grant money to demolish the homes and prevent future construction. Building resilient communities means continually adapting to our ecological context.

To my knowledge, neither the city or the county have changed any policies or procedures in response to the flooding. Cities are often at the mercy of land use decisions made upstream, outside of municipal control. Possible infrastructure upgrades can become cost prohibitive as they try to prepare for truly rare natural disasters.

However, there are best management practices we could employ further up the watershed, in relation to ditch and drainage maintenance, farming practices, and water control structures. See this article about a rural Nebraska who coordinated all of these to prevent millions of dollars in damage during a recent flood.

And yet… I watched a property exchange hands recently, one adjacent to our first rented home in Plymouth. I remember hearing the chorus of frogs singing through our open windows. I watched big bucks creep along the fence rows. Wood frogs and turtles showing up mysteriously at my back door. The new buyers promptly bulldozed the grove of willows, drained the wetland, tore apart the fence row filled with massive cherry trees cloaked in white blooms, plowed under the access lane of remnant prairie grass that was hanging on.

All destroyed in the name of corn. And all exacerbating the effects of floods on our neighbors downstream, filling their homes with sediment, their drywall with mold.

Ultimately, it is up to the people to work together on community preparedness, to elect officials who will use the best available science to plan for the future, and to respect the Earth’s ecological communities. Are we up to the task?

Lastly, I want to link again to Steve Glass’ beautiful and clear-eyed meditation on the importance of water.

I want to also point towards a recent headline, “Lake Erie just won the same legal rights as people.” At one time, this may have sounded like some wild-haired hippy dream, at least to those of us who have been indoctrinated with extractive and mechanistic thinking, a thinking is a very peculiar and recent phenomenon for our species.

But perhaps with all the nitrates, PFAS, water rationing, irrigated lawns, contaminated fish, ocean trash, lead, mercury, and floods, we might admit that we have neglected our charge. That we’ve demystified the sacred source that composes 60% of our liquid being, and that we again need to treat water, and ourselves, with more than a little respect.

A Kingfisher watches the sunset over a skin of December ice on Lake Galbraith, Marshall County (2018).