If you see smoke coming from a wooded area in Lake County this weekend, there is a good chance it is from a prescribed burn. Land managers in Lake Bluff, Lake Forest and throughout Lake County safely burn hundreds of acres every year. The reason? Fire is nature's way of controlling invasive species like the nasty bully known as buckthorn.
If weather conditions permit this weekend, Lake Bluff Open Lands
hopes to conduct prescribed burns (also known as controlled burns) in
the Prairie Preserve on Belle Foret Drive and in the Village's section
of the Lake County Forest Preserve. LBOLA President Larry McCotter said
the group conducts burns
in 20 of its 200 acres every year, focusing on
woodland areas in the fall when oak leaves are fresh on the ground, and
on prairies in the spring. He looks for dry conditions with fairly low
humidity; wind speeds of 5 to 15 MPH blowing away from nearby homes and
roads; fairly low humidity, and temperatures of 40 to 70 degrees
Fahrenheit. In this photo, taken last weekend by LBOLA member Carol
Gilbert, volunteer Andy Olnas uses a drip torch to start a prescribed
burn in the Central School Woods.
"Prairies historically would
not have existed without fire," said Mr. McCotter. "Once shrubs and
trees get a foothold, they dominate."
Prescribed burns have become a common tool used by land managers in
northern Illinois, making the dense scent of burning brush a seasonal
tradition every fall and spring. Lake Forest Open Lands conducted five prescribed burns earlier this fall, said Restoration Ecologist Ryan London. Over at the Lake County Forest Preserve, ecologists burn 200 acres of woodland and prairie every year. Last week, the County managed burns in Wadsworth Savanna, MacArthur Woods and Lakewood, according to its website. Prescribed (or controlled) burns are managed by trained professionals
who obtain permits, inform local fire departments, monitor weather
conditions, and establish fire breaks to maintain control.
Speaking of fire breaks, have you ever wondered why suburbs such as Lake Forest and Lake Bluff have such dense woodland areas compared with neighboring towns to the west? According to the Forest Preserve's web site: "Lake County's landscape dramatically shows how fire suppresses trees and shrubs. For centuries, fires swept from west to east across the county, only to be stopped by the Des Plaines River. That's why tree-sparse prairie and savanna dominate west of the river and large woodlands are restricted to the east side of the river."
Since LBOLA started doing prescribed burns in 1995, several native species have returned to the area. These include a sky-blue wildflower called bottle gentian, shown here, which Mr. McCotter described as a late-bloomer that is low to the ground and whose blossom never opens. Other native plants that have returned include shrubby St. John's wort, june grass, Michigan lilies, and round-headed bush clover.
"We are returning a natural force to the land," said Mr. McCotter of fire, which once was as commonplace as lightning in northern Illinois. "We do that
because the rest of our culture stomps fire out. We are paying a
price for that–the fires in California are going nuts because there is so much
fuel on the ground."
The Lake County Forest Preserve website offers a comprehensive explanation for the benefits of controlled burns. Here's a summary:
"After a burn, many native plants are more robust and produce more seeds. Fire lengthens their growing season, recycles nutrients and, for a few species, is critical for their seeds to spout. Oaks, hickories and a few other trees grow a thick bark that protects them from fire. Big bluestem and many other plants of the prairie and savanna keep their buds safe just beneath the soil's surface. Non-native weeds aren't so well-adapted and so burning keeps them in check. Animals, too, are adapted to fire, with many simply leaving the area during a burn."
in learning more about prescribed burns or helping out with land management in Lake Forest or Lake Bluff?
The Open Lands groups rely on volunteers and will train those interested in helping with prescribed burns (as well as other areas where they need help). Please visit the websites for Lake Bluff Open Lands and Lake Forest
Open Lands for more information.