DNR file photo

March On

by Jim Eagleman

The month of March at most Indiana DNR properties means “burn month.” Among property staff, this important resource management strategy involves planning, equipment inspections, and preparation. It also means to keep calendars open. It is a time to begin thinking of a busy recreation season looming around the corner. Winter projects of indoor repairs and purchasing helped staff get ready for these annual and anticipated events, but warmer weather still seems to creep up without warning. Is it just me, or does time fly when you’re having fun?

March is not a time for DNR employees to plan a lazy day fishing trip or relax on the couch! We are “on” in March.

By late January, most properties have submitted burn plans to DNR Fire Headquarters at Morgan-Monroe State Forest. There, fire coordinator staff members review each plan for objectives, size of burn, fuel type, and equipment required. Slope, access, site prep, and nearby water sources are important considerations, as is wind direction and the size of crew needed. But most important is a “reliance” on the weather—but how can we, when at best weather, is chancy, unpredictable and often unstable? Regional forecasts help determine if a burn is to happen or not. Burn “windows” are days and times when predictions of conditions to burn seem most likely, but can change within hours, sometime minutes. Often prescribed burns happen on a day when other things are planned. We have to be flexible and go when the conditions are right.

But why set fires purposely? Isn’t fire a bad thing? Like a prescription filled at the drug store for a remedy, a prescribed burn is needed for a particular habitat or objective. Well-controlled, slow-moving fires are purposely set in interior woodlands to reinstate or mimic a disturbance. Forests of many different types, marshes, prairies, and savannas are a few examples of what originally covered the Hoosier state. Insects, storms, tornadoes, and fire—set both naturally and by Native Americans—created periodic disturbance that influenced many of these natural communities. The plants and animals in these areas came to depend on this disturbance to provide important food and cover.

This will be our objective when we tackle some back country acreage for a second time by the park’s southern border. The Blue Creek Burn will encompass 600 acres. Here as well as throughout the forest, shade-tolerant American Beech and maples have kept acorns from germinating. The oak is an important nut (mast) tree, providing food to a variety of forest wildlife. But the acorns and small seedlings don’t receive the needed sunlight. By reducing shade overhead and in the understory (disturbing and setting back normal succession), oak saplings may have a better chance of surviving to mature trees.
Brown County State Park’s vistas, our “claim to fame,” are also cleared free of vegetation for better use and viewing using fire. As mowing and labor costs continue to rise, spring burns can be a less-expensive method for on-going maintenance.

February’s drying winds helped prepare a site for burning—warm, balmy days with constant air movement helped evaporate moisture from leaf litter and debris. The mild winter helped, too. Lack of snowfall and rains meant seed germination was slowed allowing less “green-up” at a time when dry conditions were necessary. Lack of ground moisture also means a burn can sometimes occur ahead of schedule. Records show few prescribed burns in past Februarys have occurred in the Hoosier state. But with mild winters, crews began preparing soon after the last snow melt.

Spring housecleaning, picking up after winter storms, and preparing for warmer weather will occupy much time for Brown County neighbors. Window-washing and getting out the lawn furniture may even bring smiles. But careless clearing of fence rows and brushy areas with fire on private lands can lead to out-of-control wildfires. Please consider all factors if this is your plan this spring. Prescribed fire can be a landowner’s useful tool if used wisely. Wildfires can be deadly when not taken seriously.