Conservationists detail purpose of torching preserve site
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — Turtles and snakes and most insects are still underground, hibernating in the cold earth.
Good thing, as fire starters spread out recently, streams of fire dribbling from the tips of drip torches.
In seconds, long lines of flame began to consume the dry leaf litter. Years of brittle brown leaves transformed into smoking ash.
A towering plume of white smoke wafted upward, pulling in air at ground level to feed the fire and make it hot enough to destroy low-growing trees and shrubs.
Vultures and raptor birds circled the updrafts, watching for newly exposed, easy meals.
The acres of blackened forest floor in Bennett Spring Savanna, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, will soon erupt into rolling hills of green grass, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
Native wildflowers like wild geranium and Indian paintbrush will reach up and spread their colors above the fire-fertilized ground. Weeks later, waves of coneflowers, purple prairie clover and milkweed will add to nature’s palette.
The lush landscape will be just right for those turtles and snakes and other critters, who’ll emerge long after the ground has cooled.
“We’re restoring oak woodland to an oak-savanna habitat,” said Tom Fielden, land stewardship and fire manager for the Nature Conservancy burn. “The forests around here have been adapted to fire over eons. The fire we do reduces what we call the woody stems or underbrush and allows the native plants to take root and seed.”
As spring nears, plumes of smoke from prescribed burns will tower over many parts of Missouri. The Department of Conservation torches some of the lands it owns, as do Missouri State Parks and the National Forest Service.
Managed fires emulate natural ones, which are a key part of the ecosystems in Missouri, according to Ken McCarty, director of natural resource management at Missouri State Parks.
“What fire does is bring variety and diversity to the landscape,” said McCarty, who observed the Nature Conservancy burn. “Fire creates space for all manner of plants and wildlife, and prevents the dominance of a few species over others.”
Before pioneers arrived, elk and bison roamed the savanna lands in Laclede County. The landscape was much more open, with grasslands on the tops of high hills and trees growing in the lower drainages.
McCarty said surprisingly few animals are killed during prescribed burns, mainly because the fires are timed to occur before hibernating creatures emerge from underground. Deer, birds and small mammals are able to run away from the fires.
“We like to burn as early in the spring as possible for the least impact on turtles, snakes and ground creatures,” McCarty said. “But after the fires and spring rains, you’ll see an explosion of plant life and wildflowers, typically starting in May.”
Igniting a prescribed burn involves more than tossing a match on dry leaves. There’s real science to it.
Fielden, the Nature Conservancy’s fire chief, follows a strict set of rules to determine whether it’s safe to burn a forest on any given day.
Fire teams measure temperature and humidity and work with the National Weather Service to monitor wind speeds 20 feet above the burn area. If it’s blowing 15 mph or more, the burn is canceled.
Fire teams, like the group of Colorado State University students who helped on the Nature Conservancy project, use drip torches filled with a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel to start a flaming line of leaves.
They burn the top of a hill first, in a V-shaped pattern, and the fire then moves slowly downhill through the leaves. That helps firefighters maintain control so the fire never gets too big or into the treetops.
But just in case, fire crews place their vehicle keys above the visor or in the gas cap so anyone could quickly start and move the vehicles. An unexpected wind shift could send fire that way.
The Nature Conservancy manages 19,474 acres in Missouri, 920 of them at the Bennett Spring Savanna Preserve. It typically burns 3,000 to 5,000 acres of its Missouri lands a year, on a rotating basis, to help keep trees from overtaking natural grasslands.
It’s the diversity of natural ecosystems that the Nature Conservancy hopes to maintain.
“Yesterday we burned the eastern savanna unit out here, which is more or less a pristine savanna,” Fielden said. “What it looks like today more than likely is the way it looked 200 years ago. That’s what we want the west side to look like.
“When you’re using fire as a restoration tool, it will take time.”
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com