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We Did(n't) Start the Fire

It was always burning, since the world’s been turning! Fire has been a natural, beneficial and integral part of our ecosystem for thousands of years. So much so, that many of our native communities evolved alongside and now depend upon frequent fire and its effects for their health - that’s why our trained team at Pottawattamie Conservation conducts prescribed fire across the county each year.

Pottawattamie Conservation prescribed burns are conducted year-round by our Natural Areas Management team and include remnant prairie, reconstructed prairie, savanna, woodlands, and riparian areas.

A down cedar tree burns in the prairie along Badge Ridge Trail at Hitchcock Nature Center. November 2021.

Like chopping off your hair, moving to a different state, or starting a new career, fire is nature’s way of starting a new chapter. Burning helps provide ecological balance by reducing plant material build-up, fertilizing the soil, and supporting a healthy balance of species (such as curbing the growth or spread of an invasive plant). 

In habitats like the prairie especially, where many plants have exceptional, resilient root systems

“The benefits of fire are enormous. The tied-up nutrients that take months or years to decay are within seconds turned to ash and in a form usable to plants. Sunlight warms the blackened ground and stimulates dormant plants to sprout and grow. Grazers are able to feed, uninhibited by dead litter, further stimulating growth. Trees and shrubs with the stems and branches exposed to the intense heat are killed, allowing the ground under them to receive full sunlight once again.” -- National Park Service

Time and again we see native plants grow back stronger, healthier, and with more diversity after prescribed fire. Fire and cutting also help push back invasive trees and shrubs that will shade out and kill native prairie species (some of which we may not even be aware exist!). At the same time, healthy bur oak trees that are naturally found in prairie and savanna will usually tolerate and even benefit from prescribed fire because, like prairie plants, they’ve developed strategies for dealing with fire’s effects.

The sun sets on the smoky Loess Hills after a day of prescribed burning. November 2021.

But, achieving these results comes with planning, experience, respect for the land, and prioritizing safety and communication. Pottawattamie Conservation’s Natural Areas Management team undergoes safety training and partners with other organizations to assist with prescribed burns and even wildfire suppression every year. Our team also works closely with local authorities and neighbors to inform them of burns and posts notices online and throughout Pottawattamie Conservation parks. 

Since fire is a natural part of our ecosystem and our mission is to connect people to nature, Pottawattamie Conservation parks generally remain open to the public during prescribed fire seasons. It’s up to each individual to determine whether they would like to visit or hike during a burn, but we have some common-sense recommendations for those who do visit us:

Like this post began, we did start the fire and will continue prescribing it as doctors trying to heal landscapes across Pottawattamie County. Let us know if you have questions by sending them to pottconservation@pottcounty-ia.gov!

 

 

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