This year, scientists across the state will use fire to restore and improve Ohio’s forests and grasslands. While fire is often viewed as a destructive force, scientists say the correct use of wildland fire can save money, protect lives and improve wildlife habitat.
For decades, suppression policies and land management practices removed nearly all fire from the landscape, preventing it from conducting its natural role in the environment. This has led to the failing health of many natural habitats and the buildup of thick brush and undergrowth that can lead to dangerous wildfires. But now, land managers are working with scientists to use prescribed fires – intentionally ignited and carefully managed– to mimic natural fire and improve landscape health and community safety.
“Here in Ohio, many plant and animal species have evolved to rely on fire for survival,” said Rich Shank, the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Ohio. “We’re using prescribed fires under strict management conditions to mimic the natural fires these species depend on.”
Like rain or sunshine, fire is a natural event that plays an important role in the health of many habitats across Ohio. Without fire, many plant and animal species would disappear.
Prescribed fires help return landscapes to their natural balance with fire. They can enhance community safety by reducing the buildup of dead wood and other debris that can contribute to unnaturally intense wildfires. Fire can also improve watershed conditions by thinning dense stands of trees that absorb a great deal of water and reduce the flow of springs and streams.
Prior to European settlement, fire was a powerful force in shaping the forests and grasslands of Ohio. This was especially true in the western and southern regions of the state, due to climate, land forms and the presence of Native American people (who used fire extensively to encourage wild food plants, provide open hunting areas and clear undergrowth to allow for planting crops). Fire, much of it caused by humans, led to the development of Ohio’s extensive grassland, savannas and oak woodlands, and oak dominated forests.
“Altered fire regimes” – too much, too little or the wrong kind of fire – are a major threat to the Earth’s natural habitats and biodiversity. The Nature Conservancy conducts 600 to 700 prescribed fires across the country each year. The Conservancy is working at many locations in Ohio – with private citizens, government agencies and others – to bring critical habitats back into balance with fire.
-- The endangered Karner blue butterfly has only one food source as a caterpillar: the lupine plant which needs fire to open up forest canopies and allow sunlight to reach the ground where it grows. The Conservancy is using prescribed burns at our Kitty Todd Preserve – the only known home in Ohio for the Karner – to regenerate lupine and other native plants.
-- At the Conservancy’s Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs Preserve in southern Ohio, prescribed burns have brought back over 50 acres of prairie, and long-term goals include the restoration of an additional 200 acres of barrens and woodland.
-- At the Conservancy’s Glade Wetland Preserve, fire is being used to restore the natural vegetation mix for the benefit of grassland nesting birds and raptors.
-- At the Edge of Appalachia Preserve systems, fire is used to restore and maintain grassland areas at the top of bluffs for the benefit of many species of rare plants.
"Prescribed burning deals with a variety of factors: diverse topography, different types of vegetation and unpredictable weather. All conditions must be right to safely execute a planned burn," states Dave Minney, Fire Manager for the Ohio Chapter. "Training and experience are essential for burn crew members."
Prescribed fire, along with other active management activities such as riparian restoration, noxious weed treatments and appropriate thinning are tools that can be used to restore the health of our forest and rangeland ecosystems. This type of active management often provides significant benefits both to ecosystem function and the economies of local communities.March 09, 2011