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Fire on the Refuge

When many of us think of fire, our first instinct is to have it put out immediately. But at Big Oaks and other managed lands around the state and country, fire is a key tool to keeping the landscape healthy and thriving. Prescribed fire is the term for carefully planned and executed fire that serves a management purpose. Invasive species removal, new plant growth, soil rejuvenation, grassland maintenance, and lowered wildfire risk are all benefits of prescribed burning. Historically, Indigenous peoples used fire to open areas for game to congregate, refresh the soil for crops, and to change the landscape in other ways they needed. In the Midwest specifically, expansive grasslands were burned regularly to keep shrubs at bay so herds managed by the tribes could graze. When Indigenous people were displaced as European settlers arrived, the practice of prescribed burning forcibly gave way to centuries of fire suppression. This stifled both natural and human caused fires in order to protect property. In the Western United States, especially, this led to a buildup of dry vegetation that is easily kindled into the devastating wildfires familiar to that region in recent years.

An existing paradigm has returned to the picture: land managers across the country are turning to what Indigenous people knew all along. Prescribed fire is once again being used as a key tool for land management. Big Oaks was ahead of the game: Jefferson Proving Grounds was regularly burned by the Army to keep the area from going up in flames on accident from munitions testing. This practice kept grasslands open and underbrush at bay during the height of fire suppression across America. Now that the property is under the care of the Fish and Wildlife service, the Big Oaks burn crew suits up every spring and fall to put fire into the picture. Fire managers select units on a 2-4 year rotation based on management goals and fires are lit from the road due to the unexploded ordinances further into units. Refuge manager Dr. Joe Robb says the burns not only keep grasslands open for important birds such as Henslow’s sparrows, but many unique plant species pop up in recently burned areas.

Prescribed fire benefits humans as well. Mushroom hunters scour recently burned areas for special varieties of edible fungi found under those conditions, and at Big Oaks those species include the delicious and sought after morels. Refuge staff have found that numbers of black morels are increased in a given unit in the year following a prescribed burn, and yellow morels will increase in a unit even the same year as a burn. Fire can tame brambly, shrubby areas to create a more open space for hikers to enjoy. Birders will appreciate the abundance of Henslow’s sparrows and other grassland species that use fire rejuvenated areas to nest. The rare plants that return to an area treated with fire are a delight to all visitors.

An important benefit to prescribed burning is the decreased risk of wildfires. Once a unit has been burned, it is unlikely to catch on fire and become an uncontrollable blaze and thus fire can be carefully monitored on Big Oaks. Fire management officer Brian Winters says reducing fuel accumulation during prescribed fires helps keep wildfires at low heat and spread rate, and thus containable. Of the 50,000 acres that Big Oaks sits occupies, 11,352 acres were burned in 2021 and only 274 acres were due to wildfire. Certain weather conditions such as high winds and warm temperatures spell heightened risk for wildfire or escape of controlled burns and everyone is on high alert ready to respond. When wildfire does strike the crew is deployed and it is quickly contained and put out.

The fire crew works hard every spring and fall to ensure the burns are completed in a safe and effective manner, and the refuge is all the better for it. As an intern at Big Oaks I have had the opportunity to join the crew and assist on prescribed burns this spring. I learned a great deal about fire behavior from the experienced wildland firefighters and worked fulfilling long days on the refuge completing burns in key management units. Seeing the land rejuvenate and greenery spring up quickly post fire has been extremely satisfying, and the skills and experiences I gained in prescribed fire at Big Oaks are something I will take with me into my future positions.

Written by Gretel Baur, biology intern spring 2022

Photos: Unit during a burn, unit after a burn, fire burning inside a tree, intern Gretel Baur lighting along a road.


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