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A portion of the Centennial Park prairie was burned last Friday, as part of a plan to keep trees and brush from encroaching on the 70-acre prairie. Photo by Chris Young.

Wet weather puts spring burns behind schedule

March 29, 2013 at 10:43 AM

The State Journal-Register

The window of spring burning season opened briefly late last week before the weekend’s record snowfall snapped it shut again.

March’s cold, damp weather has the burning of prairies and other natural areas off to a slow start this spring.

“The wet conditions have really slowed it up everywhere statewide,” said Randy Heidorn, director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The commission helps manage more than 500 parcels of land statewide that receive varying levels of legal protection.

Controlled fire is one of the most effective ways to manage large areas and keep weedy species of plants at bay.

“In southeast Illinois they got some burns in early and did O.K., but overall we’re way behind,” Heidorn said. “There just hasn’t been enough time to dry out.”

Before European settlers arrived, the Illinois prairies and woodlands burned frequently, and many native plants and animals adapted to periodic fires.

Fire is still used as a management tool, but in a controlled fashion.
Those who direct fires must do so within pre-determined limits of wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity. Burn outside those set limits and the fire could be difficult to control.

Last Friday, weather conditions finally allowed the Friends of the Sangamon Valley and the Springfield Park District to partner for a successful burn of portions of the Centennial Park Prairie.

Vern LaGesse, executive director of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, has worked with the park district to help train its employees in the use of fire to manage the district’s natural areas.

At Centennial Park, smoke from the fire rose from the burned areas in a towering column.

The park district was following a management plan developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Between a third and a half of the 70-acre prairie was burned.
The north half was burned two years ago, LaGesse said.

Chuck Smith of the Springfield Park District said more than 100 fliers were distributed to neighbors to alert them prior to the burn.
“The response has all been positive,” Smith said.

Protecting all species

Whether it is a state nature preserve, state park, local park district prairie or other conservation area, each site has its own burn plan based on its own unique conditions, plants and wildlife.

“Roughly, you try to leave at least half or two-thirds unburned and on a three-year rotation,” Heidorn said. “It is a good rule of thumb to burn about one-third a year, and over three years, burn the entire site.”

Wildlife managers like to leave unburned portions for wildlife cover and as refuge for rare insects that can be destroyed by fire. Some fire-sensitive insects, such as those that spend the winter as eggs or pupae in leaf litter or thatch, can be burned up.

In the days when Illinois had millions of acres of prairie, insects simply migrated from unburned areas to re-populate the burned acres. Today, with original prairie remnants in short supply, managers have to balance the needs of plants that may be rejuvenated by fire and insects that could be lost to fire.

Land managers also want to be careful of nesting birds and animals emerging from hibernation.

In central Illinois, rules call for spring prescribed burning to stop by mid-April.

Most open burning in Illinois requires a permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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