Fire. It’s more than a Chicago soccer team. More than a song written by Bruce Springsteen and made famous by the Pointer Sisters. (And perhaps even more famous when parodied by Robin Williams singing in the voice of Elmer Fudd.) Fire is also a force of nature I help control today and use as a tool in the recovery of our prairie heritage.
Even as the prairie is being newly re-created at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, it needs to be burned every few years or so. (Even the seed beds need to be burned from time to time.) An historically fire-dependent habitat type, prairie requires periodic burns to restore its soils, maintain diversity and keep invasive plant species – both native and non-native – in check.
As a Midewin volunteer, I’m having the time of my life working alongside US Forest Service staff in many restoration activities – brush clearing, native plant planting, species monitoring and the whole spectrum of seed propagation from collecting to cleaning to sowing. But the one activity not available to volunteers is participating in controlled burns. That responsibility perforce lies entirely with the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew – crack aces who help fight major forest fires out west.
However, since fire both was and is such a critical component of the prairie ecosystem, last year I enrolled in the two-day Midwest Ecological Prescription Burn Crew Member Training Class offered by Chicago Wilderness. And today, with certificate in hand, I’m out for my first burn at Indian Boundary Prairie.
The five suburban Markham parcels that make up IBP comprise one of the highest quality prairie remnants in the entire state – home to an especially rich diversity of plants and animals including several rare plants, birds and mammals. At 200 acres, it also represents one of the state’s largest prairie remnants – a reminder how little prairie remains in Illinois (less than 1/10 of one percent statewide) but also how ambitious and critical Midewin is, with its goal of 20,000 acres of restored prairie.
Back to the burn. Dressed in our fire-resistant Nomex suits, we little resemble the Pottawatomie that used to ignite the prairie to drive game to the slaughter. But with lots of collective training and experience, our band of a dozen or so volunteers – expertly led by The Nature Conservancy’s Stuart Goldman – are savvy in the use of fire for particular, restorative ends.
With winds gusting up to 35 mph today, our goal is limited to burning a wide strip at the north end of one of the parcels, which will serve as a fire break for a crew to burn the balance of the parcel on a more favorable weather day.
With some crew members stationed as lookouts to make sure no embers escape into an adjoining section of the prairie, other crew members light drip torches – fueled by a mix of diesel and gasoline – and “drop fire” along small slices of our strip, working into the wind to keep the fire manageable. Then, to keep the fire contained within a relatively straight line on both sides of the strip, crew members follow the fire with water pumps, dousing the flames as needed.
My job is to use a flapper – a large, heavy rubber flange –for the same purpose. One or two flaps is all it takes to both stamp and blow out modest flames.
Small slice by small slice, we light the prairie grasses. In spite of a high moisture level, the dry husks ignite readily, fueled by periodic gusts of wind. All it takes is a few seconds and there before you is a small wall of flame licking upwards of a dozen feet. The heat, too, is instantaneous and powerful, feeling like a burst from a hot oven.
And then just as quickly, the fuel is spent and the fire dies down to dribs and drabs along the margins. A sharp burst of pressurized water, or a strong flap, and the flames are extinguished. Here and there, some stumpish clumps of prairie grasses smolder. Squirt. Flap. Extinguished.
Left behind, where just a minute ago stood a mix of spent but still towering prairie plants, is largely ash. Here and there remain some naked stems of woody shrubs, but nothing much left to burn. When, in a few days, the next crew runs fire through here, when it reaches this strip the head fires will die almost instantly for lack of fuel. Just as planned. Controlled. Safe. Effective.
For a newbie, I didn’t eat too much smoke, save for my spell as a downwind spark spotter. But even that was bearable because next spring – here at IBP, at Midewin, and at restoration sites throughout Chicago Wilderness – the prairie will return richer and healthier than ever for the application of a little controlled fire. That is something worth singing about…fire (doo-de doo doo doo.)