Burn season, Part 1

Because spring burning is highly dependent on the weather, I will be posting about prescribed burns at work in a short series of posts.  At this time, we have completed 1 scheduled burn on Prairie Plains Resource Institute preserve lands, and assisted with another burn for Nebraska Game and Parks.

The first burn was at Griffith Prairie, the flagship prairie, work center, and in progress education center for Prairie Plains Resource Institute (PPRI). The burn unit is in a loess hills bluffs prairie and covers about 80 acres (though it was more than that due to the topography – flat ground is much closer to areal calculations than hilly terrain.)  The flashy herbaceous fuels made this prairie burn go along pretty smooth and pretty fast.  The Platte River borders the north end of Griffith.

IMG_7378
Griffith Prairie is relatively free of Juniper compared to most other grasslands in Central and Eastern Nebraska. Juniper is not a fire-tolerant species and cannot survive on land that is managed with regular prescribed burning.  The land on the extreme right hand side of the photo is not managed with fire.

In the photo below, it shows what happens to prairies and grasslands that are not managed with fire or are overgrazed.  Juniper is not a fire tolerant species, so therefore it readily invades areas within its range that are suppressed of fire – man-made or natural.  It is also an increaser, invading overgrazed rangelands and prairies, monopolizing soil moisture, lowering biodiversity, increasing precipitation loss through canopy interception, leading to an increase in the aridity of the site.

IMG_7377
Junipers invade grasslands and prairies that are suppressed of fire and/or are overgrazed. Once Juniper invasion reaches a certain threshold (site specific – depending on rainfall), herbaceous plant coverage declines, leaving the remaining grasses and forbs much more susceptible to overgrazing, as the carrying capacity of the land is reduced.
Sarah Bailey of Prairie Plains Resource Institute mans the water for the backburn.
Sarah Bailey of Prairie Plains Resource Institute waters the blackline in preparation for the backburn.
The loess hills in their burning glory at Griffith.
The loess bluffs in all their burning glory at Griffith.
The final headfire for this year's burn at Griffith Prairie.  A spectacular sight for a job well done.
The final headfire for this year’s burn at Griffith Prairie. A spectacular sight for a job well done.

The second burn for the week was at Indian Cave State Park and was my first woodland prescribed burn to work on.  The terrain was mostly steep and heavily wooded, typical of the Missouri River Bluffs country.  Prescribed fire in oak woodlands are carried by oak litter (leaves and semi-decomposed leaves), which burns much more slowly than do the flashy fuels of prairies and grasslands.  Generally, woodland fuels have more shade and more moisture than do prairies, and can require the use of much more drip torch fuel just to get fire going and keep it advancing.  The objectives for the burn were to control the exotic and highly invasive Garlic Mustard* (Alliaria petiolata), as well as reduce woody plant density and return the forests and woodlands to a semblance of their historical structure (meaning more savanna and woodland and less closed-canopy forest).

Further reading on Oak Savannas can be found at www.oaksavannas.org
Good Oak Ecological Services has an informative blog post on management of Garlic Mustard

As fires are suppressed, woody plant density increases and herbaceous plant density decreases.  Some indicator species of degraded or fire-starved eastern woodlands and forests are Elm (Ulmus spp.), Maple (Acer spp.), Hackberry (Celtis spp.), and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) as well as the lack of an herbaceous understory.
As fires are suppressed, woody plant density increases and herbaceous plant density decreases. Indicators of degraded or “fire-starved” eastern woodlands and forests are an increase in fire-intolerant species such as Elm (Ulmus spp.), Maple (Acer spp.), Hackberry (Celtis spp.), and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), as well as the lack of an herbaceous understory, along with a decline in Oak (Quercus spp.) seedling regeneration.

The state park is being burned annually for the next several years until a specified reduction in woody plant density is reached; then the burns will be on a 2-4 year frequency.  Herbaceous plant diversity will increase over the next several years, providing wildlife habitat and helping to restore ecosystem processes and functions.  Herbaceous plants are the first plants to decrease following the suppression of fires in savannas, woodlands, and forests.  Even 10 years of fire suppression can, in some cases, cause total elimination of herbaceous plant species within the interior of wooded areas; leaving highly fragmented herbaceous plant communities to cling to the perimeter of woodlands.  More reading on this topic can be found below:
Paul Voosen, E&E Reporter – Cascading species shift looms in fire-starved eastern forests
Marc D. Abrams – Fire and the Development of Oak Forests
Gregory J. Nowacki and Marc D. Abrams – The Demise of fire and “mesophication” of eastern forests

Myself putting fire on the ground at Indian Cave State Park.  700 acres were burned here in about 9 hours.
Myself putting fire on the ground at Indian Cave State Park. 700 acres were burned here in about 9 hours.

Unfortunately, for both plants and prescribed fire managers, many people fear fire; an old European mindset which has conquered much of our natural lands and brought forth the biological devastation that we have today.  However, fire is required in almost all terrestrial land ecosystems in North America, as it is one of the driving forces of plant evolution, succession, germination, seeding, and flowering.  Mother Nature’s beauty declines with the suppression of fire.  When used appropriately, fire is a good thing, especially when restoring damaged ecosystems.

Sarah Bailey finishing up the last of the interior of the fire at Indian Cave.  This was a highly physical burn for all involved, as the topography was steep in almost all areas and heavy equipment access was limited to the perimeter of the burn unit.
Sarah Bailey finishing up the last of the interior of the fire at Indian Cave. This was a highly physical burn for all involved, as the topography was steep in almost all areas and heavy equipment access was limited to the perimeter of the burn unit.
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