Fire with a positive purpose

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Fire fighters from Central Township Joint Fire District participated in a coordinated effort to burn prairie grass along the Prairie Grass Trail with the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails, and volunteers trained in prescribed burns: (from left) Jeremy Keller, certified burn boss; Brian Hackett, SWCD technician; fire fighter Evan McMahan; Central Townships Chief Brian Bennington; fire fighters Jason Johnson and Dillan Rice; and Charlie Allen, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist.

(Posted April 21, 2019)

A fire purposely set will bolster the growth of native wildflowers and grasses along the Prairie Grass Trail bike path near London.

On April 17, staff from Central Townships Joint Fire District and the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District, along with several volunteers, conducted a prescribed prairie burn along the trail at Neil Road.

A prescribed burn is the planned application of fire in wild areas under specific weather and fuel parameters to invigorate the growth of native plants and reduce the risk of an actual wildfire.

A prescribed fire uses back burning or back fire to contain the fire in the area that needs to be burned. Using a drip torch, a back fire is started downwind of the head fire at a safe distance.

A prescribed burn has many steps, and the Madison County Park District was fortunate to find a certified burn boss, Jeremy Keller, willing to volunteer his service. A certified burn boss is trained in basic fire ecology, prescribed fire planning, firing methods, smoke management, burn management, contingency planning, fire behavior predictions, and burn plan development.

In addition to overseeing the burn, Keller offered free continuing education credits to fire fighters who helped with the burn. He contacted Central Townships Joint Fire District and invited them to be on site with a brush truck as backup and receive training at the same time.

A back fire will slowly burn into wind, creating a wide barrier of barren land that a swiftly moving head fire cannot cross.

A prescribed fire uses back burning or back fire to contain the fire in the area that needs to be burned. A back fire is started downwind of the head fire at a safe distance. It slowly burns into wind, creating a wide barrier of barren land that the swiftly moving head fire cannot cross. Keller’s training showed the fire fighters how to set up a back fire and different ways to ignite it. The back fire technique is applied in situations where a wildfire becomes too hot to allow a brush truck to get close.

A head fire is started on the opposite side, which is carried across the field by the wind until it reaches a safe stopping point created by the back fire.

A common question about prescribed burns is what happens to the wildlife, such as pheasants. A burn is a temporary setback. Planned burns happen before or after the nesting season, so the adult birds depart during the burn and no baby chicks are harmed. Afterwards, the vegetation rapidly starts to grow and turn green. The animals soon return to find more insects and plants on which to feed and in which to hide.

The history of Madison County is deeply rooted in the tallgrass prairies that once covered this region of Ohio. At the time of settlement, the wet clay soil was almost impossible to plow and the prairies were used for grazing livestock.

After Ohio passed the “Ditch Law” in the 1850s, the county government was able to construct group drainage projects. With the newly drained land and the invention of the steel plow, settlers were able to break through the tough prairie sod. Settlers farmed over most of the prairies which, as a result, nearly dwindled out of existence.

“It is important to recognize the significance of prairies in Madison County because agriculture continues to play a large role in the economy and culture of Madison County,” stated Julia Cumming, program administrator for the Soil and Water Conservation District. “Approximately 88 percent of land in Madison County is still being used for agricultural purposes today.”

In 2015, agriculture and food production contributed over $113 million to the overall economy of Madison County.

The goal of the Madison County Park District is to maintain the fragments of original prairie still found along the old railroad, now converted into a multipurpose trail, out of respect for the past.

Prairie plants still naturally occur along the multipurpose trail because the land was never plowed. It used to catch on fire from time to time when the railroad was active.

“The Park District hopes to continue the partnership between volunteers and fire fighters to use fire as a management tool to help the prairies continue to grow,” Cumming said.

Landowners can grow prairies on a portion of their properties. Prairie vegetation improves soil health, water quality and the wildlife population. To learn more, call the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District at (740) 852-4003.

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