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  • Writer's pictureLutzR2

Prescribed Fire: A ritual of renewal

Controlled blaze makes way for new life

It’s that time of year again when scattered columns of thick, white smoke rise high into the skies. If you stood upon the tall towers of Blue Mounds State Park on one of these “perfect burn” days, you’d be able to pinpoint the location of various, scattered natural areas by these smoky pillars.

prescribed, burn, fire, oak, nature, Stewart, lake, Wisconsin,
Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake County Park - March 6th, 2024

Jack Saltes from Mount Horeb is an active member of the Friends of Stewart Park volunteer group and is pictured igniting around a great, old oak tree. This particular patch of ground was once part of a vast oak savannah that covered the southern Driftless Area. Not long ago this old tree was practically smothered by invasive scrub brush so dense that you couldn’t even see this very thick, majestic tree.

On March 6th, 2024 a gigantic plume loomed over the village of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. It’s massive size fed by the quick, clean burning fuels of last year's dead grasses in portions of Stewart Lake County Park. By carefully choosing a day in which the winds would blow westward the smoke carried past the vast majority of the community. Light winds carried it off high off quickly.

On this particular day two controlled burns were conducted in the park. One was a 16-acre “dry-mesic” prairie grassland, and the other a small 2-acre “oak opening,” or “savanna.” Both of these sections are restoration projects, which means they are attempts at fostering the original native ecosystem. Previous to the settlement of the area during the mid 1800’s the environment was a mix of a vast oak savanna, prairie grasslands, and scattered sedge meadows that spanned much of the Driftless Area south of the Wisconsin River.

Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake County Park - March 6th, 2024

When conducting a prescribed burn before any work is done a detailed briefing is held. Each member of the burn crew is given this detailed map. On the front you can see the red outline of the “Burn Unit,” and on the backside has the complete weather conditions for that day printed. The letters overlaying the red boundary designate navigation points. After considering a number of important factors it was decided we’d ignite this day’s controlled burn at point “E.”

From there two torch teams would then travel in opposite directions. One would go from “E” towards “F,” the other “D.” Both would then meet at “B” after a carefully coordinated travel around the loop, burning along the way.

Point “E” was chosen due to the wind blowing from the north east. By igniting where the wind is blowing out of the burn unit causes the flames to have to burn against the wind. Water is sprayed to form a “wet line” that follows the fire break, in this case the public hiking trails that loop around the unit. The fire burns away from the firebreak it’s slowed by the winds, leaving behind unburnable ash known as “The Black.” The goal is to form a black boundary that becomes so wide that fire has little chance of escaping once the ignition teams move to the upwind wide of the unit. Then the flames travel with the wind into the unit and can become quite fierce.

Aside from naturally occurring wildfires, this landscape had been managed previous to settlement with the use of fire by many generations of indigenous peoples such as the Ho-Chunk, or “People of the Sacred Voice.” By burning away previous seasons’ dead vegetation the grasslands woody scrub brush was kept at a minimum. Various species of low lying, flowering plants and grasses thrived in this open environment. This “openness” made navigation, and spotting enemies, or hunting for game, such as migrating buffalo, much easier. It also helped ensure the safety of their people by eliminating the effects of an out of control wildfire. Fire was also used to help clear land for agricultural use by the tribe. They cleared plots of fertile land and planted what they refer to as “The Three Sisters,” which are beans, corn, and squash.

Whether intentional or not, intense flames established fire-resistant vegetation with roots that extended deep into the soil. These unique conditions formed environments that supported a wide spectrum of species that struggle to survive outside of these ancient biomes that span thousands of years of existence. Very few remnants of the unplowed prairie remain.

According to the Wisconsin DNR’s Physical and Biotic Environment's Current Landscape assessment, “Agricultural crops (corn, soybeans, small grains, hay) cover 70% of this Ecological Landscape, with lesser amounts of grassland (mostly pasture), forest, and residential areas. The major forest types are oak-hickory and maple-basswood. Prairie remnants of varying quality persist in a few places, mostly on rocky hilltops or slopes that are too steep to farm. Some pastures have never been plowed, and those that historically supported prairie may retain remnants of the former prairie flora. Pastures with scattered open-grown oaks still exist in some areas, mimicking oak savanna structure. A complement of native plants persists in some of these pastured savannas.”

prescribed, burn, fire, oak, nature, Stewart, lake, Wisconsin,
Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake County Park - March 6th, 2024

A crewmember that chose to remain anonymous stands vigil over the downwind side of the controlled burn. Usually a thankless, smoky, slow paced job, it’s also one of the most important. Their role is to be ready to put out, and alert others, of any fire that escapes the burn unit. The tool they have in their hand is called a “flapper.” It is used to simply smother small flames by being placed overtop of them.

At the particular locations in the park that were blackened on this day, the prairie had been fenced up for use as pastureland during the initial settlement of the adjacent village. Naturally this had an adverse effect on the native plants. In 1935 Dane County purchased the property to form the first County Park. Portions of the park then went somewhat unmanaged for many years as the Parks Department focused on projects such as dredging/restocking the spring fed lake, improving drainage and runoff into the park from the surrounding community, as well as other amenities. This allowed woody invasives to grow unchecked in the now unused, and disturbed-by-man landscape. At one point the brush had become so dense in places that the buckthorn formed thick tunnels of green over the trails that blocked views and hosted carpets of the invasive garlic-mustard plant, honeysuckle, and prickly ash.

While the use of mowing and herbicides is an effective means to manage plant growth, fire is truly the best way to promote the health of fire-dependent vegetation. Just as when an ill human patient is prescribed medication in order to heal, fire is prescribed by those who manage lands to promote a healthy natural ecosystem. Another similarity to modern medicine is that a properly conducted prescribed burn is performed only after much careful forethought, planning, and research into the various conditions that are occurring on the day of the burn.

prescribed, burn, fire, oak, nature, Stewart, lake, Wisconsin,
Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake County Park - March 6th, 2024

Dane County Parks Botanist/Naturalist Lars Higdon rides through the heart of the smoky burn unit. As today’s Burn Boss his role is to coordinate both of the Line Bosses so their fires meet at just the right moment, without risking injuries, or losing control of the burn. Constantly in motion he has to cover a lot of ground quickly.

The largest factor involved when conducting a prescribed burn is that of safety, not just for the burn crew, but for the surrounding community as well. Done correctly, a burn is done in such a way that it is easily controlled by a group of people usually divided into teams of two or more. In fact another name for a prescribed burn is “controlled” burn.

 prescribed, burn, fire, oak, nature, Stewart, lake, Wisconsin,
Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake County Park - March 6th, 2024

While water itself is the most important thing needed to conduct a prescribed burn, the drip torch is essential. Without it the ignition of the dried out grasses, duff, and leaf debris would be cumbersome. Designed to dispense a tiny trickle of 60% Diesel : 40% Gasoline fuel, it drips flame onto the ground in a controlled manner. The loop in the neck is designed to prevent fire from backing up into the tank, and there’s a little valve for adjusting the flow rate of the fuel. The wide handles make it easy to lug along, swinging it carefully as you form either lines, dashes, zig-zags, or dots; whatever is right in the moment.

These meticulously planned, and controlled fires may seem quite frightening when seen from the outside, especially when it’s a giant cloud that seems to loom just to the north of the village, but in the end they are essential in the survival of a once diverse, and complex ecosystem.

Beginning of the circle - Brush Clearing - Stewart Lake - March 13th, 2015

March 13th, 2015 was the first day that I began participating in helping to manage native ecosystems in a very direct way. Having lived in the Driftless Area for only a few years at that time I felt very disconnected from the land on which I lived. Living in close proximity to Stewart Lake County Park was one of the selling points when my family moved to Mount Horeb. I felt the need to foster my love of nature, learn more about the local ecology, and indulge in a healthy physical activity.

In these photos you can see buckthorn scrub brush blocking the view down to the lake below. This corner as seen today is a thriving prairie grassland bordered by oak savanna, with lovely views, and rare prairie flowers that grow around where you now see a fire.

I became involved by coincidentally meeting my neighbor Don Slub (pictured in the orange jumper). He invited me to come help him with various projects in the park. He, I, and another man whose first name I cannot recall, but I believe his last name was Steiner, all worked together at various times that year. It was the beginning of my immersion into understanding the local ecosystem.

I took these photos with a Droid XT1080 cellphone.

Closing of the circle - Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake - March 6th, 2023
prescribed, burn, fire, oak, nature, Stewart, lake, Wisconsin,
Prescribed Burn - Stewart Lake County Park - March 6th, 2024

When I received an email from Dane County Parks looking for prescribed burn volunteers, little did I imagine I was going to end up working at the exact spot where I began my ecological restoration work. On March 13th, 2015 I put on my work clothes, walked over to a neighbor’s house, rode in the back of his lawn tractor-trailer full of tools into the park, and began to labor on the land. Don Slub lived just down the way from me and we’d recently met while I was trail running in the park. On that day this view was completely choked with buckthorn scrub brush. Entering it he began to cut down the invasive trees that were surrounding, and about to overwhelm a small patch of rare prairie flowers. As he spiraled around this tiny remnant of the native oak savanna grasslands my job was to drag all the cuttings into one of the largest brush fires that I have ever built. You can still see a faint, lighter greenish circle of different grasses in the center of the foreground in this photo.

Ron; Lutz; II;
Me after a day of igniting & taking photos.

This article was published by the Mount Horeb Mail along with a few photos.

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