Prescribed prairie grass burns crop up around county

April 11, 2019

SYCAMORE – A team of six ecological and native landscape specialists gathered at Old Mill Park on Tuesday, carefully mowed the land around a portion of the park, and then set it on fire.

It wasn’t cause for alarm, though. It was prescribed burn, a regular occurrence in flatland areas in forest preserves and park districts, said Samantha DeDina, natural areas maintenance superintendent for DeKalb-based ENCAP Inc. ENCAP’s (Environmental

Consultants and Planners) team is licensed to conduct controlled burns of prairie grass and has spent the burning season training Sycamore Park District staff so they can conduct their own burns in the future.

“It’s a common practice,” said Jeff Donahoe, superintendent of parks at the Sycamore Park District. “It’s definitely something that you can see benefits from: the rejuvenation, the plants that come out after the old stuff is taken away. It helps the health of the overall areas that we’re maintaining.”

DeDina said ENCAP has done 21 burns already this spring, including a few in McHenry, DuPage and Kane counties. Burns help rid native grasslands of dead and invasive species, and help new plants and grasses grow better.

“The bonus of native species is that they’re very deep-rooted, which is why they’re generally not affected by the fire,” DeDina said. “The invasive species we’re targeting will be negatively affected because they don’t have deep roots. The fire can also help the ground warm, which will help seed germination.”

Prior to the burn at Old Mill Park, DeDina said ENCAP obtained permits through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Sycamore Fire Department. They send mail notices to surrounding residents a week in advance of the burn, as well as a 24-hour phone call before the burn for any residents who request one after getting their letter.

Tuesday brought ideal weather conditions for burning: sunny, 15 mph winds and dry conditions.

“Once we’re actually on site, we cut burn breaks, which means mowing any surrounding vegetation on the burn site and creating a border for where we would like the burn to stop,” DeDina said. “That reduces the fuel so that the burn is less likely to go across the area.”

Donahoe said the Sycamore Park District has many sites where native grasslands grow, and they conduct burns every three or four years to help maintain the sites.

“They’re nice to have, because they’re natural and eliminate [the need] for mowing,” he said. “Plus, it’s natural and beautiful, so once [native areas] mature, they get lots of nice color and attract wildlife and butterflies.”

He said natural plants are especially helpful around water, because they stabilize the bank with their roots and inhibit erosion.

ENCAP crews don’t use chemicals to light the fire, but instead use drip torches filled with a mixture of diesel and gas.

“We’ll start with a back burn down one side and burn into the wind, since it moves very slow,” DeDina said.

She added that some burns can take longer than others, depending on smoke mitigation and whether the burn needs to be directed around things such as trees or open grassland. Old Mill Park took longer because crews had to avoid trees.

ENCAP crews wear fire-retardant suits, DeDina said. One person lights the fire in rows, and then the rest of the crew is stationed around the edges of the site with water tanks.

DeDina said this spring burning season has been especially busy because their scheduled fall burns had to be pushed back because of weather.