The Benefits of Fire!

The Nature Conservancy is set to begin prescribed burns this spring in central and western Minnesota as well as eastern North and South Dakota

MINNEAPOLIS, MN | April 01, 2008

The Nature Conservancy will work with partners to conduct prescribed burns on native prairie across Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. In Minnesota, only about 150,000 acres (less than one percent) of the original native prairie remains. Prescribed burning is critical for the maintenance and restoration of the landscapes.

Fire is an essential force that has shaped ecosystems and life forms around the globe. But in many ecosystems today, the role of fire is severely out of balance, threatening to devastate both human and natural communities. In Minnesota, fire prevents brush and trees from overtaking the prairie, prevents build-up of dead vegetation that encourages weeds and retards new growth, and improves habitat for prairie birds, mammals and butterflies. Many “exotic” grasses (introduced from Europe, Asia or other areas of North America), such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome, threaten to overwhelm the native prairie community. These cool-season grasses which grow quickly and flower in spring can be set back by burns in May, allowing the summer-flowering native prairie grasses to flourish. In forests, fire can remove hazardous fuel loads of downed trees and vegetation that threaten the health of forests and the people living among and near them.

Each individual on a crew is responsible for the success of the burn. Burns will be undertaken only within “prescribed” conditions—weather that permits safe burning. Mowed fire breaks or burned strips (black lines) outline the prairie unit to be burned. The “ring firing technique” is used: Using drip torches, crew members start by setting a backing fire into the wind along a specified line. Generally an hour or more later, a head fire is set. This eventually meets the backing fire, extinguishing them both. Using water tanks and “flappers,” crew members extinguish flames as necessary. The last step is “mop up.” The crew makes certain that old fence posts, cow chips or tree limbs near the burn perimeter are completely free of smoke or flame before leaving the site. Permits are obtained from local offices of the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR, local emergency dispatch offices and preserve neighbors are notified prior to the burns.

Less than two hundred years ago, one-third of Minnesota was covered by vast expanses of treeless plains. The prairie was a rich world of abundant grasses and flowers that teemed with wildlife, from huge herds of bison, elk and antelope to an immense number of waterfowl. Since 1840, more than 99 per cent of Minnesota’s natural prairies have been built upon or plowed under. Scientists have been studying prairie since the 1930s. They have found that prairie grasses and flowers are well suited to fire—in fact, they thrive with it. These perennial plants grow back quickly from protected root systems which often extend 15 feet underground. Fires prevent brush and trees from invading the prairie; shade kills prairie plants. After a fire passes, the prairie grasses and other plants respond with a profusion of bloom. Fires also remove the build-up of dead vegetation, encourage new plant growth and help suppress non-prairie plants like Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome. Studies show that wild mammals and birds recognize fire and nearly all escape the flames. Small mammals go underground while larger ones move away temporarily or jump unharmed across the fire line..

Tentative List of the Conservancy's2008 Priority Burns


Helen Allison Savanna, Anoka County
Regal Meadow, Kandiyohi County
Schaefer Prairie, McLeod County
Sheepberry Fen, Pope County
Lake Alexander, Todd County
Norway Dunes, Kittson County
Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area, Kittson and Roseau counties
Glacial Ridge Project, Polk County
Pembina Trail, Polk County
Audubon Prairie, Clay County
Agassiz Dunes, Polk County
Twin Valley Prairie SNA, Norman County
Western Prairie SNA, Wilkin County
Town Hall Prairie, Wilkin County
Frenchmans Bluff, Norman County
Pankratz Prairie, Polk County
Miller Prairie, Traverse County
Bluestem Prairie SNA, Clay County
Foxhome Prairie, Wilkin County
Zimmerman Prairie, Becker County
Blazing Star SNA, Clay County
Kettledrummer Prairie, Wilkin County
Red Rock Prairie, Cottonwood County
Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie, Lincoln County
Blue Gentian Ranch, East Unit, Jackson County
Chippewa Prairie, Chippewa County(joint project with MN DNR)
Lindgren-Traeger Bird Sanctuary, Jackson County (Joint project with Heron Lake Fire Council)

North Dakota

Cross Ranch Preserve, Oliver County
John E. Williams Preserve, McLean County
Davis Ranch, Sheridan County
Brown Ranch Preserve, Ransom County
Pigeon Point Preserve, Ransom County

South Dakota

7-mile Fen, Deuel County
Altamont Prairie, Deuel County
Aurora Prairie, Brookings County
Sioux Prairie, Moody County
Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. Memorial Preserve, McPherson County
Ecosun Prairie Farms Project, Moody County
Prairie Coteau Habitat Partnership private lands, northeast SD
Private lands inMcPherson and Edmunds counties

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

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Chris Anderson
(612) 331-0747 (612) 845-2744

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