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Fire on the prairie: Curative use of fire at the Forest Preserves of Cook County, bonus remotest spot

Tagging along and learning much on a prescribed burn with the Forest Preserves of Cook County; plus the bonus of going to the most remote spot in Cook Cook.

Steve Smith, Danny O’Rourke, and Chris Carpenter, resource technicians with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, work the leading edge of a prescribed burn at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve. Credit: Dale Bowman
Steve Smith, Danny O’Rourke, and Chris Carpenter, resource technicians with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, work the leading edge of a prescribed burn at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve.
Dale Bowman

A mouse climbed down a black oak, then scurried across the ashes, 30 feet behind burning browned oak leaves in a prescribed burn at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve.

“It knew to go up the tree to safety,” said Kristin Pink, resource ecologist for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. “These are animals that deep in their DNA, they’re living in a fire-dependent ecosystem. They know what to do. Birds will fly away. . . Predators will come back through here looking for any meals that they can find. That mouse is going to be a lot easier to spot now that the system burned.”

I tagged along at prescribed burns Tuesday at Cap Sauers and Bergman Slough, part of the 15,000 acres of the Palos Preserves. John Pellegrino was the lead burn boss. Pink, also a burn boss, led the pre-burn crew meeting.

She went over the minutia of the burn: proper sequence on radios, emergency plans, escape routes and plans for how the smoke will drift. (Tuesday the burns were designed to have smoke drift to other parts of the preserves).

Crew leaders were John Jackson and Danny O’Rourke.

Everyone wore jumpsuits or pants and shirts made of Nomex, a fire retardant material, and other protective gear. Fire is serious business, but also primal and exhilarating.

When asked why, volunteer Brian Saame said, “Because [it] is good exercise for me and the purpose is good. But I love fire.”

As to the good purpose, Pink said, “[Burns] are cultural practices that natives did for thousands of years to manage the land. The fires were not set by lightening, they were set by people in a cultural practice.”

That led to fire-dependent ecosystems where plants and animals evolve, such as a mouse knowing how to survive a burn.

“When I started to get into burn business, prescribed fire was not accepted as a land management practice,” said John McCabe, director of the department of resource management for the FPCC, in a phone call. “We have come a long way, particularly at the forest preserves.”

The response of the public has changed to where McCabe said. “Especially over the last 10 years, as our program has ramped up, they recognize and support it. Some cases they are even requesting it, to have the brush cleared out. Ten-15 years ago I probably would have fallen over.”

We began at Visitation Prairie, a remnant prairie and most remote spot in Cook County.

Some crew members ignited the fire. Others cleared fire breaks with leaf blowers and rakes. Others worked flappers (poles with flappers to beat errant flames). Others used fire retardant to keep the burn where it was planned. Pellegrino went back and forth to make sure nothing went awry.

Back fires were set to make a strip to prevent the head fire from jumping into an unplanned area. The most impressive flames come when the head fire exploded across Indiangrass and bluestem, reaching heights of 8 feet.

Flames flared when they ignited Indiangrass and bluestem during a prescribed burn at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
Flames flared when they ignited Indiangrass and bluestem during a prescribed burn at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
Dale Bowman

“It is rejuvenating for the prairie or woods as it is for my own soul,” said Benjamin Cox, executive director of the Friends of the Forest Preserves, in a phone call earlier. “It is one thing in restoration where you can start and finish in one day and see what you have done.”

“Coolest part is when you finish the burn and you have a successful burn: This team feeling, this camaraderie, that is very cool,” McCabe said. “Also easy to see what you done, it is this giant black area.”

Near the end of the first burn, Pink said, “You’ll have to come back in the spring and see the site.”

Yes.

A sign on a road leading to the prescribed burn site at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve and Bergman Slough in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Credit: Dale Bowman
A sign on a road leading to the prescribed burn site at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve and Bergman Slough in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
Dale Bowman