by TaLeiza Calloway
Students at Kennedy Community School can tell you why prescribed burns occur.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service burned about 46 acres surrounding the school recently, they weren’t worried by the orange flames spreading before them. They had learned of its necessity in advance.
It’s not the first time 10-year-old Rhiannon Theis witnessed the environmental process. The St. Joseph resident said she has seen a similar burn at a nearby park in her neighborhood. The fourth-grader was still surprised at how safe the burning is for the crew administering it.
“I’m surprised that no one gets hurt from it,” Theis said. “We learned it helps make a new environment. Ashes are good for the ground.”
Fourth-grader Mitch Hieserich had seen fire before but not a prairie burn. The speed of the fire is what stood out to him.
“I’m surprised at how fast everything burns,” Hieserich said. “It feels like we were just over there and now we’re all the way over here.”
Both Theis and Hieserich were right in their observations of safety and speed. All are part of the planning process for prescribed burns.
Sheldon Myerchin, state coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Minnesota Private Lands Office, said preparation for the burn started months ago. Specific criteria like wind speed, humidity and wind direction are included in the prescription for the burn. All conditions must be met, and communication with local fire departments is needed to make it happen smoothly.
“It’s a very coordinated effort,” Myerchin said.
Dick Birger, fire information officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the prescribed burn is important for several reasons. One reason is it reduces the hazardous fuel so if a fire should start by lightning
or by someone tossing a cigarette butt where there’s no control of the conditions, it makes it harder to spread. There is also the environmental motive.
“We’re also re-introducing fire to a prairie ecosystem which developed over thousands of generations of plants to be adapted to fire. Many of the plants we’re getting rid of were not native, were not adapted to fire,” Birger said. “We’re doing three things: reducing hazardous fuel, encouraging native plants and discouraging non-native plants.”
Normally, on average, a prescribed burn is done in three- to five-year intervals. Some batches of prairie might burn every year for a few years while other burnings occur every 25 years. There is no set schedule. It all depends on how things react to the burn.
“When dealing with nature it’s not precise,” Birger said.
A crew of 17, including several members from national wildlife and refuge services, was on hand to assist with the prairie burn at Kennedy Community School. Birger said prairie burns are an inexpensive way to maintain the grounds by having their cover remain with native plants. The proximity of the prairie to the school also provides a good learning lesson for students.
“It’s a pretty neat opportunity for them to see outside their school door,” Birger said. “We kind of like to say we’re turning the clock backwards right in front of their eyes.”