Sunday was the first day of burn season. Okay, it was the first day of burn season for me. The truth is my fellow burn buddies in The Prairie Enthusiasts started without me on Friday. Worse, because many of them are retired, they will be burning on Monday and Tuesday while I am punching a time clock.
Burn season is that magical time in early spring between winter brush season and fishing season. Throughout the winter, on days when the weather permits, chainsaws, brush saws and loppers reclaim neglected southern Wisconsin shrub-land to a semblance of the prairie and savanna that settlers found when the arrived nearly two hundred years ago. Brush clearing drives away the winter doldrums, but it is fire that makes the magic.
Fire from prescribed burns is needed to keep the invasive shrubs and aggressive trees like boxelder and black locust at bay. Most trees and shrubs do hot tolerate fire. Their bark burns and the sap layers beneath are destroyed, killing the woody plants. Some trees and a very few shrubs tolerate fire. For millennia, bur oaks, white oaks and hickory have used their tough bark to protect them.
Before European settlement, lighting and fires set by Native Americans keep the prairies and savannas of southern Wisconsin clear. Today, that task falls to public land managers, private landowners and volunteer groups like the Pheasants Forever, Quail Society, Prairie Enthusiasts and Nature Conservancy.
We meet up at the barn at noon and within a half hour a dozen hearty soles are at the first burn unit getting our briefing. Weather is perfect, northwest winds 10-15 mph with relative humidity in the mid 40s means the fire will be manageable, even on the steep slope that makes up our first unit.
A pair of sandhill cranes move off the marsh scared by the commotion of a dozen humans even before flames light up the hillside. They are just beginning their nest building and have not begun laying eggs. Enough unburnt spots will remain in the marsh for them to rebuild a nest in time to raise their family.
The burns continue through the afternoon, right up to sunset. We burn two upland hillside units and a third large marsh area, which has six test wells that must be protected from the flames. All goes according to plan, with the final fire line being closed off as the sun set over the ridge.
Most days I keep my Nomex hood pulled up over my cheeks and nose to protect them from the flames. Today, however, it is the chill wind that keeps my face covered, especially as our crew is forced to wait to light off the upwind side of the marsh unit.
With luck, burn season will continue until Mother’s Day weekend and opening day of fishing season. For everything there truly is a season and a time to every purpose. Helping to restore balance to the land is what conservation is all about and looking over that valley ready for its spring rebirth makes me feel blessed.