by Carl Strang
Smoke rose in thick columns on Thursday as the Forest Preserve District’s controlled burn program reached Mayslake Forest Preserve. Mayslake has well-established restored prairies, and the burn cleared off the dead tops of last year’s growth. The fire released minerals back to the soil, opened the way for the living roots to send new, unimpeded shoots skyward, blackened the soil further to facilitate plant growth by soaking in solar heat, and knocked back undesirable, competing woody plants.
Goldilocks would appreciate the decision to burn on a given day. Everything has to be just right. There needs to be some wind, but not too much. The area has to be large enough but not too large, and bounded by mowed areas or other fire stoppers. The vegetation needs to be dry enough. Finally, the burn crews need to be sufficiently equipped and trained to manage the burn safely.
Sometimes burns are incomplete due to the plants being too wet, but this time the prairies burned well. A walk through a recently burned area is worth taking, as it reveals what was hidden by all that herbage: the microtopography of the land, which can help determine exactly which plants grow where; the networks of animal trails, large and small; skeletons of animals that lived their last moments there. No freshly killed animals, though. They have their ways of escaping the flames.
The day after the Mayslake burn I found a number of animals taking advantage of the change. Killdeers and robins ran unimpeded over the cleared ground. Migrating sandhill cranes took advantage of thermals rising from the blackened soil to gain altitude during their journey north. In a few days, the warming soil will release and activate insects, and eastern phoebes likely will congregate to feed on them.
Another month, and the ground will be thick with new green shoots. The prairie always grows better in a burn year. (Note: This post first appeared last week as a Nature Note in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Observe Your Preserve website. )