The human use of fire has shaped the landscapes of the Oklahoma Ozarks for thousands of years. Prior to statehood, the region had a history of frequent fire. In addition to lightning-set fires that most often burned in the spring and summer, Native Americans were known to set fires each fall. Fires were set to improve forage for wildlife, to drive herds, increase visibility, increase plant diversity for foods & medicines, and many other uses. The early settlers continued the practice of setting the woods afire almost every year.
The forests covering these hills have changed dramatically in the absence of periodic fire. Early descriptions of the region noted open prairies, grass-covered savannas, and very open woodlands with abundant grasses and wildflowers. Frequent fire prevented trees and shrubs from becoming too dense. Fires burned across the region in a patchy pattern, with some areas burning intensely, some only slightly, and others not at all. This led to a diverse landscape comprised of a mosaic of vegetation types including prairie, shrubland, savanna, woodland, and forest.
The size of the Nickel Preserve allows us to apply fire at a landscape scale. Large units (500-1,200 acres) are burned in spring and fall. Individual units will be burned every 2 to 10 years. Crews of at least 12 individuals and a support fleet of fire trucks and sprayers are used to safely complete burns on the preserve. As fire is returned to its original place in this ecosystem, we expect to see a reemergence of the diverse landscape observed by the early travelers to this region more than two centuries ago.