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Prescribed Burning
submitted by Ben Cottrell, District Conservationist, Waukon
Prescribed burning has been in full force over the last couple weeks around the county. Prescribed burning is a commonly used management practice in grasslands and can benefit most sites in many ways. Burning the accumulated plant litter affects the nutrient balance by removing some nutrients in smoke and releasing others in ash, which can benefit native plants. Removing litter also opens the vegetation, resulting in more light reaching live plants, greater airflow so plants can get carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and allowing more moisture to reach the ground surface (though the dark surface of a burned prairie can also contribute to water stress in dry periods). The black ash and exposed soil left after a fire heat more rapidly and can stimulate plant growth. Also, some seeds require heat, smoke, or ash chemicals to stimulate germination.

The open ground left after a fire can benefit some wildlife species, though it can be temporarily detrimental to others. Invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles, and lichens can be particularly vulnerable to fire. Prescribed fire can also be used to achieve specific management goals by burning at certain plant growth stages or under specific environmental conditions. For example, burning when smooth brome is undergoing stem elongation (when its root reserves are depleted) can help in setting it back, while burning when it is dormant might encourage its growth. Targeting a particular species will require understanding how it is affected by fire. A good resource in gathering information regarding fire (and grazing) effects on plant species can be found at the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Effects Information System at www.feis-crs.org/feis. While fire is one tool that may be useful for management, it may not be the right tool for a specific goal. It can help in reducing woody plant cover, but how well it works depends on the species, its growth stage, and the seasonality of the fire. Some species, like eastern red cedar, may be killed by fire. Other trees may have thick bark that resists fire (like oaks) or may resprout after being top killed by fire (like buckthorn, non-native honeysuckle, and aspen).

Though fire may not be sufficient on its own to kill some invasive species, it might still be a useful tool to remove litter, making later herbicide treatments easier or more effective. Fire can stimulate seed germination. This can benefit the site by increasing the genetic mixing of native species, but can also result in a flush of unwanted plants. Sweetclovers, for example often show a short term explosion in abundance after a fire. This flush offers opportunities for control with follow up management such as haying or mowing. Since sweetclover is biennial, mowing or haying the second summer after a burn is effective in reducing seed production.

Fire is inherently dangerous, so have a plan and a goal before lighting the match. The safest thing you can do is not light the fire, so if you are going to burn, do it when you can expect the results you want. This includes being sure you can safely burn under the conditions with your available resources (equipment and people).

For more information on prescribed burn and many other management practices, come visit us at the Waukon NRCS Field Office to see how we can help.