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Fire as the natural, essential tool: A day in the field

The prescribed burn at Franklin Creek State Natural Area took off in the prairie sections.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Bill Kleiman setting the day up. Credit: Dale Bowman

Bill Kleiman setting the day up.
Credit: Dale Bowman

FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill.–Nearly 20 of us in yellow Nomex fire-resistant coveralls and yellow hard hats clustered in a ragged half moon around Bill Kleiman Wednesday morning. Using a map by the stairs of headquarters for Nachusa Grasslands, he outlined plans for a prescribed burn at Franklin Creek State Natural Area.

Crew boss Cody Considine oversees the start of ignition, by John Heneghan, of a burn at Franklin Creek State Natural Area. Credit: Dale Bowman

Crew boss Cody Considine oversees the start of ignition, by John Heneghan, of a burn at Franklin Creek State Natural Area.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Fire is primal, essential, dangerous, alluring, much like love or the best of life.
To the point, Cody Considine said, “Fire is the critical component, the biggest tool to get the job done.’’

Almost as an aside, Considine, a restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, said, “Unfortunately, we are failing miserably.’’

That’s not just his assessment as a guy whose masters at Southern Illinois was on fire history in the Pembroke area of eastern Kankakee County, but also the assessment of a recent study by the Illinois Prescribed Fire Council.

The IPFC “recommends that private and public land owners should burn at least 213,000 more acres each year to protect nearly 1.3M acres of natural areas in Illinois. Currently, a mere 6 percent, or roughly 50,000 acres are burned in Illinois, not enough fire to keep brush thickets from damaging sun loving habitats.’’

(Click here to read the full report.)

The burn Wednesday was of several hundred acres of mixed habitat at Franklin Creek SNA, northwest of Franklin Grove in Lee County and connected to TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands.

Prescribed burns–fires set to restore natural balances in ecosystems–are major operations, the reason Kleiman laid out precise plans. The burn Wednesday included the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, TNC (volunteers and staff), Byron Forest Preserve District and Dixon Parks.

IDNR heritage biologist Russell Blogg was the burn boss. Crew bosses were Kleiman, his wife Susan and Considine. I was on Considine’s crew with John Heneghan, who is often a crew bass but was mentoring me for the day.

Gravel and blacktop roads already had smoke signs posted.

“If you see any hikers, give a heads up,’’ Kleiman said. “Look out. Use your eyes, know where the fire should be and where it shouldn’t be.’’

Prescribed burns are not haphazard, though from the outside, the rush of the fire across a prairie may look that way. There is regular training for fire crews and bosses. (TNC follows National Wildfire Coordinating Group guidelines.)

Dry prairie provides fast-burning fuel. It’s awe-inspiring to watch a prescribed fire explode in dried prairie grasses.

Wetlining borders before ignition during a prescribed burn at Franklin Creek SNA. Credit: Dale Bowman

Wetlining borders before ignition during a prescribed burn at Franklin Creek SNA.
Credit: Dale Bowman

A test burn was set. Satisfied, Heneghan fired his fuel can (two parts diesel, one part gasoline), then lit dried leaves and grasses along a road. Others left to start other fires. Others worked wetlining (spraying edges or by utility poles). Others did mop-up, coming behind to do whatever needed doing.

The crew bosses watched all–“It is easy to look at the fire, but you want to look beyond’’–trying to see the big picture more than just the mesmerizing fire itself.

In the big picture, fire is vital for oaks and hickories, anchors in many native ecosystems. They need open space to grow and thrive enough to replace the aging historic oaks.

After an hour, Heneghan had me take the fuel can and start fires. Walking the edge where fire licked toward my leather shoes made me feel both exhilarated and morally superior.

The fear of fire and the under-utilization of fire as a management took “has to change, otherwise, it will be buckthorn, bush honeysuckle and tons of multiflora rose,’’ Considine said.

Prescribed fire takes hold at Franklin Creek SNA. Credit: Dale Bowman

Prescribed fire takes hold at Franklin Creek SNA.
Credit: Dale Bowman