Feature

How to fight fire…with fire

Leaf and tree litter
Leaf and tree litter can create hazardous conditions, while a prescribed burn will rejuvenate a forest. Photo taken Nov. 17, 2020, by Parker Palen.

A student perspective on prescribed burns

Wildfires are typically not set on purpose and can cause massive destruction like the ones happening in California this year.  

In contrast, prescribed burns are areas set on fire purposefully with an end goal favoring the management of that land or a certain species.  

 There are important questions to ask before starting a prescribed burn. For example, “Am I hurting the environment?” “Why would fire be helpful?” “Would I be injured?” are important things to consider. 

 It is necessary to be open minded to the idea that prescribed fires, once seen as an ecological disturbance in the 1950s when fire science was relatively new, may help in preventing massive wildfires like the ones seen today.  

The world proves it needs balance in many ways. One of those ways is nature’s desire for disturbance based upon geographical location.  

According to Jason Taylor, an instructor for Wildland Firefighting at Kirkwood, “Midwestern ecosystems favor fire as a disturbance due to periodic droughts, high summer temperatures and strong winds.”  

When we experience these droughts, temperatures, or winds, the land is showing susceptibility to wildfire activity.  

Controlled and non-suppression fire management techniques used before European arrival had Iowa’s territory flourishing with over 90% tall grassland/prairie. Today, it is around 4% grassland/prairie. There is a solution to this problem. 

The second reason fire is important to Iowa is because fires are necessary for preventing uncontrollable wildfires and they promote biodiversity.  

According to The Nature Conservatory website, “Regularly applied fire can reduce the intensity of an unplanned fire. Without fire, leaf litter builds up over time providing lots of fuel. If an unplanned fire should occur, it will be much more severe and harder to control where a lot of fuel has built up…Fire can also be used to increase wildflower diversity in grasslands, which benefits butterflies, moths and other pollinators, providing a variety of food sources throughout the growing season. Diverse grasslands also provide the different types of vegetation and structure that pollinators need during different times in their life-cycles.” 

There are some organizations, such as The Indian Creek Nature Center that require no experience to volunteer for a prescribed burn and ensure safety as a top priority. Those interested could also consider adding Wildland Firefighting to their course schedule to learn more hands-off material about the importance of fire in relation to our environment. 

Image courtesy of Parker Palen

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