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Perspective: A prescription for fire

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Dee Hudson
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Elizabeth Bach shows us her raking skills at a prescribed burn.

Have you ever visited a natural area to find a charred, black landscape? Don’t be alarmed -- early spring is controlled fire season in northern Illinois.

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Charles Larry/© Charles Larry
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(ALL RIGHTS) Stone Barn Savanna After a Burn. Photo credit: © Charles Larry

Prairies and savannas developed with regular landscape fires set by Indigenous peoples to encourage new plant growth for harvesting and attracting wild game. Grasses, flowering plants, and trees in this region are fire-adapted. Iconic oak and hickory trees, pale purple coneflowers, and prairie phlox flourish after fire. Grassland birds like the Grasshopper sparrow prefer to nest in short-structured vegetation after fire. Many plant species not native to this region are not adapted to fire. Controlled fire is one of the best ways to reduce invasive species and support native plants and animals.

How do workers control a landscape fire? Mowed fire breaks are prepared around the edges of the area to be burned. Before the fire, managers alert local emergency dispatch. Teams of trained firefighters ignite on the downwind edge of the unit, with one igniter working around the perimeter of the unit in a clockwise direction and the other ignitor walking in a counter-clockwise direction. The crews spray water to keep the fire within the fire circle. Finally, the upwind head-fire is set and the wind pushes flames into the already burning fires along the other edges. At this point, the fire self-extinguishes!

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Charles Larry/© Charles Larry
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(ALL RIGHTS) Stone Barn Savanna After a Burn. Photo credit: © Charles Larry

If you see smoke on the horizon or a recently burned natural area in the next few weeks, know that these controlled burns are maintaining healthy open natural areas for plants, animals, and people.

I’m Elizabeth Bach, and that’s my perspective.

Elizabeth Bach
Dr. Elizabeth Bach is a scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Illinois, based at the Nachusa Grasslands preserve near Franklin Grove.