This past week, many folks around Champaign-Urbana and surrounding areas may have noticed plumes of white smoke gently rising in the distance or caught the scent of what seems to be the well-known smell of a campfire.
It is that special time of year when a tiny window of time emerges for the application of ecological burns to promote the health and diversity of native plants in many of our local natural areas. This practice is by far one of the most important processes that natural areas managers can re-create in parks and preserves to boost the health of prairie ecosystems.
However, the general public is often alarmed at the sight of a controlled burn, not understanding the vitally important role fire has historically played in our central Illinois landscape and across the state. It has been a part of nature here long before human inhabitants took control by plowing fields, building roads and subdividing the countryside into the plots of land we see today. And humans have played a major role in fire ecology from ancient times through modern day in North America, so we probably shouldn't be the strangers to burning that we are today.
A study of Illinois natural history would reveal that prairie ecosystems became dominant in Illinois sometime after the last ice age, when glaciers receded some 12,000 years ago, setting the stage by leaving behind the flat landscape we see today. Over the next 4,000 years, plant succession and climatic conditions combined to favor the development of extensive prairie in Illinois.
Fire played a critical role in the prairie, occurring naturally but also often set by Native Americans, and spreading across the vast, unbroken landscape. It helped by consuming dead, above-ground plant parts, cycling nutrients back into the soil and eliminating competition from invading trees and shrubs, effectively maintaining the extensive prairies that covered most of our state at one time.
Experienced land managers are not strangers to fire, understanding Illinois' fire history and the extremely important role that fire plays as a tool for maintaining native plant heath and diversity in the restoration of natural areas. Without prescribed fire, prairie restoration would not be possible, as competition from trees and non-native plants would overwhelm native prairie species.
"Some folks are still surprised when they see large chunks of their parks on fire, but most people know by now that we rely on prescribed burning as our most effective tool in the development and maintenance of our natural areas," says Randy Hauser, horticulture and natural areas supervisor for the Champaign Park District.
Huaser and his burn crew have been very busy this past week capitalizing on the good weather. In order to burn safely and effectively, each site requires detailed planning and close monitoring of weather forecasts. Conditions in the field are measured pre-burn to ensure that everything from fuel moisture to wind speed and direction are within the pre-planned, specified range of conditions acceptable to conduct the burn.
"Extensive pre-burn field prep, merged with perfect combinations of wind speed, wind direction, and relative humidity, typically result in fires that are both beautiful to watch and essential for the short- and long-term health of the prairie," Hauser said.
It is often a real guessing game as to whether or not the stars will align and conditions will be conducive to burning, making it difficult to plan burns much more than 24 hours ahead of time. Burn crews need to be ready to quickly mobilize each day if conditions are met.
"If the forecasts hold, we make all of the proper notifications to local businesses and authorities," Hauser said. "Then we set out for a day of smoke, flame, and the magic of assisting nature with one of the greatest shows on Earth."
It truly is an incredible force of nature to observe. I have participated in prescribed burns since my college days and still marvel at the beauty. To me, it is an interesting window into Illinois' ancient past, painting a modern day picture of what a naturally occurring wildfire might have looked like as it rolled across the prairie state.
Today, scientific research and extensive field application have taught prescribed burn practitioners how to effectively manage fire and use it for ecological good. When you see this wondrous restoration tool in progress at one of our local parks, rest assured that the dedicated folks out there in yellow suits have carefully calculated conditions to safely apply fire and keep a living record of Illinois' botanical past in place for the rest of us to enjoy.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.