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Why Prescribed Burns

Danielle Mauter, Chief of Marketing & Communications
Leah Harrison, Natural Resources Volunteer Coordinator

The first signs of spring seem to be different for every person you talk to. Some refer to the birds returning to the area and their sweet songs being heard again. Some refer to budding trees and the first green blades of grass. Some refer to the peeper frogs chirping at night. However, if you’re part of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Natural Resources department, fire often marks the start of spring.

You might be unaware that the Metroparks has our own Natural Resources department, but it is an important tool in upholding our mission and core value of stewardship.  Our natural resources department oversees and manages undeveloped land throughout the 13 Metroparks. The goal of the Natural Resources Department is to protect and restore significant elements of natural diversity while balancing ecological stewardship with compatible recreational uses.

In order to maintain these diverse ecosystems, occasionally prescribed burns are required. At the Metroparks, all staff involved in the prescribed burn process are trained through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group as a Wildland Firefighter Type 2. Before a site is burned, a permit is requested from the local fire department and a prescription is written detailing where the burn will take place, what weather is required to be safe, what burn breaks exist or must be created, and how to light the site safely.

The day of the burn, the local fire department is made aware and the weather is checked again to ensure it is safe to proceed. Prescribed burns do not take place if the relative humidity is too low, the wind speed or temperature is too high, or there is a red flag warning in effect. Many precautions are taken to ensure the safety of the prescribed burn. Burn breaks are used to contain the fire and water is immediately available if any flames cross the line.

Timing is especially important. Our burns are performed before the emergence of snakes and other reptiles and before native birds begin nesting. However destructive they may seem, prescribed burns actually serve multiple environmental benefits. Native plants that naturally evolved with fire depend on it to maintain their dominance on the landscape. Many native plants developed adaptations to survive frequent fires in dry ecosystems. Prairie plants have deep roots to reach water and stay untouched from flames. Oak trees have thick bark to withstand the heat. Exotic and more mesic-loving native plants, not having these adaptations, are killed by fire. Without fire, those invasive species begin to encroach on open prairies and fill in savannas and woodlands. It becomes impossible to stop this spread without the use of herbicides and great human effort.

Fire revitalizes these landscapes by recycling dead materials and making room for new growth. It maintains ecosystems that are infrequent in our current landscape, where there are unique forbs and grasses. Many of these plants will not germinate until they have experienced a fire. Without them, many animals and insects (including native bees) would lose a critical supply of food and habitat.

So what is a prescribed burn? A prescribed burn is a controlled fire in a natural environment. During a prescribed burn, our staff take a drip torch, which contains a mixture of fuels that help to safely carry a flame, and lay down fire across an area of ground. Additional staff come behind them using rakes, water and pre-created burn breaks to control the fire and keep it from spreading to unwanted areas. This process continues until the desired area has been completely burned and snuffed out. In the Metroparks, they are most frequently used to control grassy or shrub covered ground areas, but can also be used in wooded areas as well.

This year, the Metroparks will be performing prescribed burns in a total of approximately 115 acres across 6 of our parks. If you see a burn taking place, we encourage you to watch from a safe distance and appreciate the work that is being done, but for your safety, please obey all barricades and signage.

The natural diversity of the Metroparks is reflected in the number of unique habitats, animals, and plants found throughout the parks. We have 61 identified threatened, endangered or special concern species within the Metroparks and 20 vegetative community sites registered with the state as exemplary examples. Without the work of prescribed burns being done by our natural resources department, we would not have the same level of biodiversity that we have in these exemplary habitats.

So next time you think spring – think about your local natural resources workers and what they’re doing to contribute to our spring landscape and healthy natural habitats!


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