Prescribed Fire Management

Knowles Creek RX

Before settlement, many experts believe that every acre of land probably was burned every four or five years. Many of these fires were caused by lightning but also Native Americans driving game or improving pastures.

Now after many years of fire exclusion, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are working to restore ecosystems with fire. Many native plants in northern Wisconsin have unique adaptations that allow them to withstand fire and even thrive after it. This in-turn allows the wildlife who depend on these plants for food and shelter to also thrive.

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest conducts most prescribed fires April-June or in September and October. Timing of prescribed fires involves weighing the many pros and cons. Burn in the spring and some early nests may be destroyed, but nesting cover is improved for future years. Burn in the fall and some winter habitat may be lost, but plant vigor is improved the following spring.

During the actual burn, most wildlife are able to escape. Ground dwelling animals are able to burrow under a log or stay underground. In wooded areas many find refuge in tree cavities. Animals that run and fly usually leave the area ahead of the fire. Birds that may have started nesting will lose their nest, but many will start a new nest within the next few days. The burn creates a thicker, younger cover and also increases food availability by stimulating seed production.

The right fire at the right place at the right time:

  • Reduces hazardous fuels, protecting human communities from extreme fires;
  • Minimizes the spread of pest insects and disease;
  • Removes unwanted species that threaten species native to an ecosystem;
  • Provides forage for game;
  • Improves habitat for threatened and endangered species;
  • Recycles nutrients back to the soil; and
  • Promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plants.

Clam Lake prescribed burnThe Forest Service manages prescribed fires and even some wildfires to benefit natural resources and reduce the risk of unwanted wildfires in the future. The agency also uses hand tools and machines to thin overgrown sites in preparation for the eventual return of fire.

Specialists write burn plans for prescribed fires. Burn plans identify – or prescribe – the best conditions under which trees and other plants will burn to get the best results safely. Burn plans consider temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and conditions for the dispersal of smoke. Prescribed fire specialists compare conditions on the ground to those outlined in burn plans before deciding whether to burn on a given day.