Prairie Burns in the Midwest

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By: Sierra Chmela

Throughout the country, fire is a challenge many plants have evolved to deal with and even come to rely on. Though we often hear of the wildfires raging out west, fire has been an integral part of midwestern ecosystems for thousands of years.  

Many of Illinois’ native plants have a natural resiliency to fire. Due to these natural defences, we are able to conduct controlled burns to clear brush, return nutrients to the soil, and weed out invasive species without causing extensive harm to the plants we’re trying to protect. Controlled burns are usually done during the spring or fall. Many Illinois wildflowers, including leadplant, black-eyed susan, and some coneflowers, produce significantly more flowers after a fire. This is due to a combination of more nutrients in the soil, more exposure to sunlight, and the fact that scorched land is able to warm faster in the spring which allows seeds to germinate earlier.  

West Prairie Burn Crew
West Prairie Pre Burn

Many trees, oaks for example, have developed thick fire-resistant bark that protects them from harsh flames. Some trees actually depend on fire for reproduction. The Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), which is native to parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, has serotinous pine cones, meaning they are sealed with resin that can only be melted by intense heat like that of a fire.  

In Lincoln Park, the Conservancy partners with the Chicago Park District to conduct prescribed burns in the spring and fall. Although all of our native gardens can benefit from prescribed burns, we regularly burn our west prairie and savanna habitats around North Pond. These habitats contain mostly tall grass prairie plants that depend on fire for overall health and biodiversity. 

Fire is nothing new to the Illinois landscape. It’s not only something to be dealt with but also a powerful and necessary tool for ensuring healthy native plants and ecosystems! 

West Prairie Post Burn

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