Open Spaces

Fire: Friend or Foe?

Prescribed burns seem counterintuitive to the admonitions of Smokey Bear


By April Anderson | Photo: Rob and Phillip Neff

Once the snow disappears and the standing vegetation from last fall becomes dry, they will be out. With drip torches, backpack sprayers, flappers, and in some cases, tanker trucks full of water, Nomex-clad contractors, resource managers, and specially trained burn teams will be intentionally setting local natural areas ablaze.

Prescribed burns seem counterintuitive to the admonitions of Smokey Bear which once emphasized, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The Yellowstone Fire of 1988 changed everything. Following a century of fire suppression, a raging fire that started in June and wasn’t contained until September brought devastation and enlightenment, changing the way ecologists felt about fire, and reconfiguring Smokey Bear’s message to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

Historic roots

Lightning and its subsequent fires have always been a natural component of native ecosystems. Ten thousand years ago, indigenous people burned prairies and woodlands to keep them open for hunting. Later, European settlers used fire to maintain pastures. Today, prescribed burns are carefully planned blazes linked to natural areas management plans. Spring burns are typically completed after the snow melts, but before maple buds begin to turn green. In fall, the burning schedule depends on frost. After two hard frosts, but before the first snow, Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) strive to finish remaining burns. Fall burns are completed in areas that tend to be too wet for spring burning, while late spring burns target sites with thin soil to reduce exposure and minimize erosion. “Windows for burning are dictated by weather and fuel,” says FPCC director of resource management John McCabe.

For Citizens for Conservation (CFC) Restoration Chair Tom Vanderpoel, prescribed burns are carefully orchestrated to minimize the intensity of fire. Late winter/early spring and some fall work days with highs in the 40s and 50s are targeted to reduce the negative impact on snakes, turtles, salamanders, and frogs since most reptiles and amphibians are not be out in late winter or early spring.

Focused on improving habitat for native plants and animals, McCabe works with the forest preserves’ ecologist, volunteer stewards, wildlife team, and resource management crews to make burning decisions. Both “burn bosses” who lead prescribed burns for FPCC sites and volunteers attend specialized training for Midwest ecological prescription burns, assisting with 200–300 burns before they can become designated leaders. “We’ve done a lot of work in the last couple of years, clearing invasive brush, herbiciding [stumps] and applying fire,” McCabe explains, noting the successful return of native plants with increased light reaching the ground. With the presence of food and shelter formerly squelched by invasive species, wildlife naturally returns.

Fire and wildlife

Deer, rabbits, and other herbivores rely on the new growth produced after a fire for food. Insects gravitate toward heartier flowers. Birds and snakes consume insects. Bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks, and Henslow’s sparrows need fire on a limited basis to keep grasslands open along with some unburned patches to hide from predators and build their nests. Sandhill cranes favor burned areas for the visibility and fresh plant growth available for colts. Raptors fly in circles over fires to look for exposed rodents or gather insects caught in the column of smoke. Amphibians and reptiles burrow underground, hide beneath rocks or logs, or retreat to wet areas that don’t readily burn, while early emerging spring amphibians such as the Western chorus frog become an easier target for predators. For burns later in the day, raccoon and fox may be seen along active firelines looking for snakes and mice.

Fire can kill animals that are young, weak, or unable to move, but there is no evidence of an entire population being eradicated. Wild Ones, a national organization that promotes landscaping with native plants, recommends burning only one-fourth of a natural area each year to avoid destroying all of the habitat wildlife uses to make its home. “If we know we have rare insect or butterfly populations, we do not burn the entire ecosystem,” explains Vanderpoel. “We target what we are burning in one year.”

Smaller prescribed burns can be more readily managed than wildfires because they are planned. Burn bosses can have everything set up for a burn and then cancel the burn at the last minute if wind speeds are unsafe, it’s an Ozone Action Day, or smoke could blow into roads or homes. Wildfires are more likely to injure people, wildlife, and property because they have more fuel to stoke longer, hotter fires.

“Out West, a 300’ wall of flames can launch embers a mile away,” says McCabe, reflecting on dangerous wildfires in California, Idaho, and Arizona. “We manage fire. We don’t control it.” Differences in weather and vegetation impact fire behavior, just as human choices can impact its presence or absence. “Although burning a prairie is most beneficial to the health of the plants, mowing can be a limited substitute for burning, if proper care is taken,” says Donna VanBuecken, executive director of Wild Ones.

Burning desires

Prescribed burns are tools that reduce weedy and woody growth and allow sunlight to reach soil. Fire scarifies the seed coats of New Jersey tea and acorns to promote better germination. Burning invasive species like reed canary grass enables restoration crews to more efficiently herbicide new growth in wetlands.

Fire removes excess fuel leaving leftover ash to enrich the soil with potassium, calcium, and magnesium carbonate. Native seeds sprinkled on top of cool ash after a fire have direct contact with the soil, frost action for effective planting, and natural heat from the blackened soil to start growing. Most of the visible “smoke” is actually steam released by the heated vegetation. “A [prescribed] burn emits fewer volatile organic compounds than a gas-powered mower making weekly cuts on the same-size property,” explains VanBuecken.

Anyone can set something on fire, but not everyone should try to execute a prescribed burn without completing extensive training, checking local ordinances, and obtaining an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) permit. Volunteering with a local natural areas group such as Citizens for Conservation is a great initial step in learning about prescribed burns. Hiring a reputable contractor to work on your property allows work to begin without the investment of time and training necessary to do it yourself.

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Anatomy of a Prescribed Burn

  • Check local regulations regarding prescribed landscape burns and obtain permits.
  • Get a reputable company to do the burn or plan to engage in extensive training. The Morton Arboretum offers Midwest Ecological Prescription Burn Training (February 25-26 or 27-28) to prepare participants to serve on prescribed burn crews.
  • Alert your local fire department and neighbors. Avoid burning when the wind blows toward roads or homes. Smoke may be an irritant to those suffering with respiratory conditions.
  • Cut down tall plants. Use a mower or weed whip to knock everything down to a 3” level in order to keep flames down.
  • If you don’t have a Nomex suit, wear natural fibers (such as cotton or wool) and leather work gloves to keep your apparel from melting.
  • Check the weather through National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) before you begin. Opinions regarding acceptable wind speeds vary. Fire chief Jim Arie and Wild Ones’ Donna VanBuecken concur that 5 mph winds are appropriate while Forest Preserves of Cook County director of resource management John McCabe prefers swifter winds.
  • Establish burn breaks: mowed or gravel paths. Always do backburns (burns against the wind) to create bigger burn breaks before igniting larger areas.
  • Be sure you can put out the fire before you get started. Have a hose hooked up to a dependable water source, along with a rake and a flapper.
  • Don’t expect everything to burn, because it won’t. Plan to leave standing habitat for wildlife.

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CFC Winter Program Series Begin on January 9

Bees, Trees, and Mosquitoes

  • Citizens for Conservation’s Community Education Committee speakers will discuss all three subjects—along with plant conservation—in its winter program series, beginning Saturday, January 9.
  • “Native Bees in the Garden,” the first program, will feature Adrian Fisher, sustainability coordinator at Triton College. She will discuss how to create a garden that functions as an ecosystem for native bee species.
  • Other programs in the series include:
  • “Mosquito Abatement,” Saturday, February 6. Ryan Anderson from Midwest Pesticide Action Center will describe the detrimental effects of mosquito fogging and discuss alternative controls.
  • “A Wealth of Possibilities for Native Shade Gardens,” Saturday, March 5. Peggy Simonsen, chair of the Community Education Committee, will discuss native shade plants for all seasons.
  • “Plant Conservation in a Changing World,” Saturday, April 9. Learn which plants may adapt to climate change and which may go extinct locally or globally. Featured speaker will be Dr. Kay Havens, director of the division of Plant Science and Conservation, Chicago Botanic Gardens.
  • General Info: Programs begin at 10 a.m.; come for coffee, conversation, and handouts at 9:30 a.m. All programs will be held at the Barrington Village Hall, 200 S. Hough St., Barrington. Parking is available in the lot behind the building. Program is free for CFC members; $10 for nonmembers.
  • R.S.V.P. to 847-382-SAVE (7283) or to: Provide your name, phone number, and the program name.

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Fourth Graders on the Prairie

In its 7th year, Fourth Graders on the Prairie is Barrington’s extraordinary outdoor classroom experience run by a growing number of dedicated volunteers who attend field orientation (36 volunteers, 363 hours) and help with the classroom presentations and field trip activities.

Field directors Edith Auchter, Michele Gillett, Wendy Paulson, and Gail Vanderpoel led the program in 2015 through eight consecutive school days from September 14 to 23 with no rain dates used. The program provided two hours for every fourth grade class from all eight elementary schools

The outdoor classrooms visited by students are prairie sites owned by Citizens for Conservation (Flint Creek Savanna and Grigsby Prairie) and Cook County Forest Preserves (Galloping Hill in Spring Creek Forest Preserve), all of which have been restored by volunteers from Citizens for Conservation and Spring Creek Stewards. New for 2015 were CFC’s adopted goals in conjunction with Barrington’s Sesquicentennial—one was for the students to identify 150 species during the fourth-grade prairie visits. A total of 122 species were identified and documented.

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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at