Medical professionals write prescriptions for ailments and illnesses. That fact is very well known. But did you know land managers write prescriptions for igniting fires in our fields, woodlands and marshes? Today’s Wilder Side of Oakland County nature blog was inspired by a resident asking me why there was a fire at Independence Oaks County Park a few weeks ago and “the fire department never showed up.” I was tempted to simply say, “They had a prescription to burn,” but instead I explained the fire situation they witnessed in an abbreviated version of today’s blog. I was a bit surprised by the question since the contractor’s fire suppression equipment was on site, just not the local fire department, which in this case would have been Independence Township Fire Department.
Of note, before you read further, the photos I am sharing today are from prescribed fires in our Metroparks and Oakland County Parks and a few from a small prescribed fire in Brandon Township, which I was directly involved in back when I was an on-call fire medic for Brandon and also held a “Red Card” necessary to be qualified for wildland fire operations. Many park agencies have prescribed fires in their baskets of management tools. In full disclosure, I no longer have Red Card certification, but occasionally work with wildland fire agencies as a volunteer.
Smoky the Bear had his heyday when all fires were looked at as dangerous and destructive events and needed to be stopped at all costs. The rules back then were pretty simple. Extinguish all fires! Setting fires intentionally back then was certainly out of the question. Thankfully, Smoky has gained wisdom as he matured with age and now low-intensity fires conducted by trained professionals under specific weather conditions restore health and vitality to ecosystems in Oakland County and across our nation. With enormous advances in technology, lightning-caused fires, especially those out west, are now monitored and in some cases are allowed to burn if they do not pose a threat to homes, humans or livestock.
The fact of the matter is naturally occurring wildfires started by lightning was a regular component of our local landscape and throughout the Midwest. Many ecosystems are vitally linked to fire. Historically, fire was a common feature of the Midwest landscape and across the nation. Prairies, wetlands and woodlands burned with some frequency. Native Americans even used fires as a management tool long before it was used by “settlers.” As areas became more developed, fires were extinguished before they could spread. Those actions, however, disrupted the natural balance. By reintroducing fires, we are reintroducing a natural process.
Those fires stimulate growth in many species of shrubs and trees and helped eradicate many non-native plant species that were not adapted to fire. By returning fire to a site, such as the prescribed burn I watched at Independence Oaks, we give a competitive advantage back to native species and restore the site to its more natural state. That fact is often hard to explain to anyone watching a prescribed burn. They just see a fire and do not grasp it’s a beneficial event. Even threatened species, such as our Massasauga rattlesnakes, can benefit from habitat that has been altered favorably by prescribed fire.
Prescribed fires are planned with detailed attention to the species that live in the area. During the burn, some animals like deer and rabbits simply leave the site while others such as groundhogs find cover by retreating to burrows or simply temporally leaving the burning area.
When I was taking photos earlier this month of the prescribed fire at Independence Oaks County Park, I was casually walking near the fire line wearing dark green Nomex brush pants and a bright yellow Nomex shirt. It’s standard gear for wildland firefighters and wise for a writer to wear that is up close when documenting a fire. Nomex is inherently flame-resistant and as the company states, “won’t melt, drip or support combustion.”
During the Independence Oaks fire, several people that had been cycling down the adjacent pathway approached me and asked what was happening. I tend to ramble on when excited about any topic of nature’s way, including wildfires and prescribed fires. I kept my answers brief and to the point. My interest in wildland fires goes way back to when I did an internship for my master’s degree at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the high-desert country of eastern Oregon. Prescribed fire technology has changed dramatically since the “old days.” Their prescribed fires were set by a pick-up truck dragging a burning oil-soaked tire along the edge of the refuge patrol road and burned thousands of acres. This photo of mine from 1975 shows part of that process. Tires that are soaked in oil and dragged behind a pickup truck are no longer used. Now it’s a “drip torch,” which is a handheld tool used that drips flaming fuel.
Before you decide you are going to do your own prescribed fire – do not! Safety, common sense, and legality may be issues and, with the major green-up now behind us after a few weeks of warmth and rain, the prescribed fire season is pretty much at an end. There is more to it than you may think. In summary, wildland fire specialists write detailed burn plans for prescribed fires.
Burn plans identify – or prescribe – the very best conditions under which the target species will burn to get the best results safely. Burn plans are detailed. They consider temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation and conditions for the dispersal of smoke. Heavy smoke drifting over a highway can have disastrous results. Prescribed fire specialists compare conditions on the ground to those outlined earlier in burn plans before deciding whether to burn on a given day.
The benefits of burning are numerous when planned well and having detailed knowledge of the habitat and fire behavior. Prescribed fires can enrich prairies and wetlands, and they help control the invasion of undesirable plants by stimulating native fire-adapted plants to spread while simultaneously killing many woody and non-native plants that would otherwise have taken over these sites. Skillfully applied prescribed fire allows diverse, native plant and animal communities to thrive in the natural areas of Oakland County. Sometimes all a site needs to be healthy and diverse is a well-thought-out and well-timed prescription to burn.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.