November 1, 2023

Burning for a Better Tomorrow
How I Utilize Prescribed Fire in My Habitat Management

Photos by Cassidy Rausch.

Smoke wafts up from an ongoing prescribed fire in a grassy area. In the background is  the edge of a woodland against a blue sky.

It is a warm and sunny August afternoon in northern Illinois. I stand in a freshly cut burn break, overlooking a previously restored prairie area that has seen better days. Trees and shrubs have crept in, and the diverse plant life has turned to mostly cool season grass and goldenrod. Pollinators are few and far between and the wildlife use has notably declined. In the middle of the field sits a small, deeply rooted cluster of native wildflowers and warm season grasses whose deep root systems provide excellent tolerance to grazing and fire but are no match for the eventual takeover by exotic plants. This field represents many native prairies (such as those enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program) across Illinois and the rest of the United States, characterized by a lack of diversity and a quick take over by undesirable plants, like those pesky invasive species and fast-growing trees. This place needs a lot of work and certainly will not change overnight, but I know where I will start, and that is with fire.

A month ago, I was digging through my imaginary habitat management toolbox, looking for the best approach to restore this “prairie” back into looking like a prairie again. As daunting as the task may seem, I plan to turn this field back into a beautiful and diverse prairie, full of color and life like it had 12 years ago. My toolbox presents numerous options, yet arguably the most impactful and cost-effective tool in my arsenal is prescribed fire. No, not the unpredictable and scary fire that races with the wind towards an un-mowed edge. Instead, I will utilize a slow backing fire, working against the wind to slowly consume years of built-up thatch. A well-conceived and highly developed plan will ensure I have everything needed to make this a safe and effective burn. My plan calls for a growing season burn that will set back woody encroachment, remove the thatch layer and promote more wildflowers. One prescribed fire will not flip this prairie on its own, but it is the first step in my restoration efforts.

An individual wearing a helmet and fire retardant gear spreads fire using a drip torch during a prescribed fire on a prairie. Black smoke fills the sky on the left above black charred grasses. In the background is a cloudy sky above agricultural fields.

The plan begins on the downwind side of a west wind, which prevents smoke coverage over roads and nearby residences. I have already obtained my Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Open Burn Permit and developed an ignition narrative to follow the day of the burn. My crew and equipment are lined up and the burn breaks are mowed low and wide. I have checked the weather forecast a dozen times over the past few days, waiting for the day that fits in my acceptable conditions window. Alas, a sunny day with a west wind greets me at the end of the work week, and it is time to burn. At 9 a.m. my crew assembles on the east line ready to set fire to the ground. An hour later, the burn is complete, leaving nothing but a field of black scattered with brown stems throughout. The burn was a success, and we gathered to discuss how it all came to be. Today, with the use of prescribed fire, we took one step closer to returning this prairie back to its original beauty.

Prescribed fire can be utilized in many ways depending on what you are trying to accomplish. The growing season burn described above will girdle smaller trees and shrubs, allowing for easier treatment of the resprouts with an herbicide in the summer of next year. The bare ground will allow for good seed-to-soil contact when I inter-seed a native mix over the winter. Any native seeds remaining in the soil will have a chance to germinate in the spring. The fire intensity was low and left many stems behind that will continue to provide some cover for wildlife over the winter. Burning the prairie is not a one-and-done situation, in fact, I plan to break the area into three units and put them on a burn rotation once every three to four years. Depending on the vegetative response and how it correlates with my management goals, the timing and intensity of each burn may vary. Regardless, I am excited for the inevitable change, especially one that will yield more colorful blooms. Roughly three years from now I will plan a fall dormant burn over part of the prairie to stimulate wildflower growth, or perhaps a late spring burn to promote more warm season grasses. Adjusting the timing and intensity of a fire can yield different results that you can build into your habitat management plan depending on what you are trying to accomplish. If you are looking to increase the amount of native warm season grasses (big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, little bluestem, etc.) in your prairie, a spring burn between late March and early May will help. Increasing forbs (wildflowers, legumes and other broadleaf plants) can be accomplished with late growing season burns (August-September) and fall dormant season burns (October-December).

A metal drip torch sits on the ground next to a white-tailed deer shed antler. In the background are the flames of a prescribed fire along an area of mowed grass.

Keep in mind that fire should not be looked at as a silver bullet, but a tool in our habitat management toolboxes. There will be times where fire is not the best option or perhaps not an option at all, and that’s okay. When it is available, it is a fantastic tool to have. This year I will focus on the prairie and next year I will work on burning a 9-acre oak/hickory woodlot. Yes, burns are great for most woodland areas, too. This prairie burn took an hour and covered 5 acres, yet it only cost a few hours of time by everyone involved and a little bit of fuel. I will take that every chance I get!

With years of experience the process is easy for me, but I know many people who would like to incorporate fire into their habitat management toolbox who may not have the experience I do. There is a lot to think about and planning is the biggest part. However, there are plenty of people like me who are eager to help. I highly recommend reaching out to one of the many wonderful resources available such as Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, just to name a few. To discuss utilizing fire on your property, email or call a biologist from one of the organizations mentioned above. You might even get a chance to have the biologist come out and explain the best approach to burning your property. These biologists will explain everything you will need to complete a burn, from equipment to plans and permits. The online resources available for learning about prescribed fire and fire behavior are limitless and are a good start to learning how you can conduct a safe and effective burn. Maybe doing the burn is not something you feel comfortable with or have the time for, but you would still like to make a part of your habitat management plan. There are burn crews across the state, from contract crews and nonprofit organizations (local chapters) to prescribed burn associations (PBAs) led by volunteers. Reach out and see if there are any in your area. Your local biologist might even know a crew or two.

My hope is that this inspires you to learn more about using prescribed fire on your property or prescribed fire in general. If you get a chance, go out on a prescribed burn, and see how it is done. You will find that it’s not as cumbersome as you might think, and the results are well worth it.

Jared Trickey is the Northern Illinois Prescribed Fire Coordinator with Pheasants Forever. Originally from Northern New York, he now calls Illinois home. Trickey joined Pheasants Forever four and a half years ago as a member of the Habitat Strike Team, and since then has held multiple positions with Illinois Pheasants Forever. Prescribed fire is one of his most utilized tools in habitat restoration. Over the course of his career, Trickey has worked on close to 200 prescribed fires in five states, and recently became an Illinois Department of Natural Resources certified Burn Manager.

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Submit a question for the author

Question: I see all the local counties around me(Dekalb, Kane, Campton Township, ect.)taking advantage of the weather and burning all the open prarie? In the research I have done, late March to April is best for this prescribed fire application. Shouldnt I wait a little longer to burn our 3/4 acre? We would prefer the results to encourage more prarie flower growth since our goal is to overseed this area with native plants. Grasses are well established now, however we also have many encroaching bushes and trees on the plot. Please let me know your thoughts as we would like to restore…not RUSH the process. Thanks