A Reintroduction of Fire on the Land

Urban Ecology Center

Land Stewardship

We usually conduct prescribed burns at our Menomonee Valley, Riverside Park, and Washington Park locations each spring.

The natural areas proposed for burning have become dependent on prescribed fires in order to survive and prosper. These prairie and woodland ecosystems need fire in order to return necessary nutrients to the soil, combat invasive species, and remove dead, built-up organic matter. Ideally, lands are burned on a consistent schedule. Land Stewards are responsible for developing a land management plan and enforcing a prescribed burn schedule depending on the ecosystem type.

Prescribed burn

Spring and Fall seasons are typically when the weather is most ideal for successfully and safely laying fire on the ground. This is also when most native vegetation is ‘dormant’, or not actively growing. Even when the portion of the plant above ground is consumed by fire, the plant’s underground roots persevere due to their deep, robust root systems. These seasons are also typically outside of many animal breeding seasons and activity periods. To ensure safety for overwintering fauna, a ‘refugia’ is implemented in each burn unit. This refugium is a strategically unburned portion of the land that allows animals coverage and the habitat they need while the burned land recovers. Surveys will be conducted prior to the burn to evaluate the activity of any special concern species.

Prescribed fire has been a tool on the natural landscape since pre-colonization, used by indigenous peoples as a form of land management.  Prescribed burns stopped as colonization took place and the natural lands were developed and inhabited. Fire suppression continued for decades after, largely due to the Smokey the Bear movement. Due to the lack of fire on the land, much of the natural materials (dead plant material, fallen leaves, branches, etc.) normally burned up in fires began to build up, year after year. This organic build-up shades out emerging plants and makes for a much more intense and even hazardous situation if a wildfire occurs. The lack of fire also leaves an opportunity for some invasive species to go unchecked and thrive.

Prescribed burn in Washington Park

All individuals working the prescribed fire have been trained and certified as wildland firefighters. Many of the individuals staffing the UEC burns have hundreds of hours of prior prescribed burn experience. The staff takes many hours planning to ensure the burn can be conducted safely and efficiently. Necessary signage and information will be posted at each of the branches when prescribed burning occurs.

Have more questions? Reach out to Emily Helm, Land Steward at Washington Park (ehelm@urbanecologycenter.org)

Urban Ecology Center
Past Employee
Guest Author

At the Urban Ecology Center, we connect people in cities to nature and each other.

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