Prescribed fire (RxFire), or controlled burning, used often by the
Guardians and by The Prairie Enthusiasts, is the restoration ecologist’s
number one tool for natural areas restoration. However, it can be
easy to forget why natural areas require it.
Fire was a common sight in America for millions of years before European
settlement. From the eastern seaboard to the forests of the west,
our country was frequently “on fire.” It was just as much
as part of Nature’s cycle as the dropping of leaves in fall.
Some areas burned every 50 to 100 years and some areas burned twice
annually, but no place burned as frequently as the Midwest (with the
exception of Florida).
Due to the high flammability of oak leaves and prairie grasses,
our Midwest ecosystems burned quickly and often. Naturally, lightning
strikes caused ignition, but the Native Americans utilized fire for
many purposes for thousands of years, especially in areas with high
populations of Indians like Northwest Illinois, and they are responsible
for retaining the prairie, a man-sustained ecosystem.
Indians burned prairies for many reasons, including to hunt, to ease
travel, stimulate flowering, keep lookout points open, for celebration,
communication and warfare. It is safe for me to assume that Indians
wouldn’t hesitate to burn for the stunning beauty of a vast
nighttime burn, too.
These fires raced across the landscape and could travel hundreds
of miles in a day, traversing through woodlands, wetlands, ridges
and ravines. The fire was not choosy on what it was going to burn;
only large rivers would stop it. One report from the 1840s claims
that a fire that started in Peoria, Illinois, reached Rockford (Rocky
Ford) in just two hours!
Fire shadows created by frequent burning are still visible on the
landscape today. Ever wonder why the east side of a river is more
wooded than the west? The prevailing winds push the fire toward the
east. Since it cannot cross the river, the trees are free to grow
on the east bank.
After the end of the Blackhawk War and the exiting of the Indians,
fire intervals were reduced but were not entirely eliminated. Fires
from camps often escaped, lightning-generated fires continued and
locomotives began starting fires as they pushed through the prairies.
Soon, agriculture would dominate and wildfires would become isolated.
The wildfires that were feared by pioneers and homesteaders were still
fresh in people’s minds and were feared. Our ecosystems began
to change at this time as fire retardant agricultural crops were preferred.
Throughout the 20th century railroad rights of way were maintained
with fire by railroad companies to reduce brush. This is why so many
‘railroad prairies’ exist today. Locals in Jo Daviess
County can remember the railroads from Blanding Landing to East Dubuque
being burned with regularity in order to keep brush down. Herbicides
do this today.
The first people to duplicate wildfire as a tool for restoring natural
areas is debated, but it was most likely Aldo Leopold or some of the
University of Wisconsin professors working on Curtis Prairie in the
1940s. This was a good start, but soon after Smokey the Bear was born…
Smokey the Bear is the longest running public service campaign in
the United States. A highly successful campaign, it reached out to
all Americans and taught them that fire was bad for the environment.
This public relations stint cancelled all headway to utilize RxFire
as a land management tool until the 1970s, although “Smokey”
still remains a barrier today with many baby boomers.
As our remnant ecosystems became fire intolerant and those remaining
were succumbing to invasive species, the 1970s and 1980s saw increased
use and research of RxFire. In the Midwest prairie preservationists
were becoming arsonists, and some of the leading scientists were screaming
for reform on the current federal wildfire procedures. The blessing
in disguise came in 1988, with the wildfires at Yellowstone National
Park. Initially, these fires were reported as destructive and Time
called them an “American Tragedy.” In the years following
the fire the ecological response was very positive and soon the reputation
of wildfires changed for the better.
Since the early 1990s RxFire started becoming widely accepted among
conservationists, especially in the Midwest. Since the upswing began,
the study of fire effects on specific ecosystems and its harboring
species has been a very interesting discipline. We are still learning
a lot about fire effects on plants, insects and animals. However,
the results have been conclusive. Because the Midwest contains ecosystems
where fire occurred frequently, the consensus has become: We need
more of it if we want our native species to persist and thrive.
After millions of years of living with fire, our native species
became tolerant and sometimes dependent on fire. We are now hearing
many interesting theories and research findings. For instance: Some
say our mammals and amphibians gained claws in order to dig holes
quickly to create shelter from fires. And a study published last year
showed that certain prairie seeds require smoke contact in order to
germinate. Oak trees will germinate at higher rates when woodlands
are burned. We are also learning about using fire to control health
issues such as Lyme disease.
With all of that said, I must note that ecologists are also realizing
that too much fire can be detrimental and that different burning techniques
and varied timing can offer greater results. For that reason a burn
prescription should be conducted by an experienced ecologist who can
quantify all of the factors and is aware of the goals for a site.
Of course, the safety issues surrounding a prescribed fire are ones
that should never be taken lightly, either.
Remember, folks, when you are volunteering on a burn or are observing
one in the distance, you are seeing the world’s oldest and most
effective form of land management and one that is certainly “local.”