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State wildlife officials conduct prescribed burns on public lands throughout Wisconsin in the spring to improve wildlife habitat, control invasive plant species, restore and maintain native plant communities and reduce wildfire potential.
Department of Natural Resources staff typically conduct prescribed burns between the months of March and May. Parcels are typically burned every one to five years, and vary in size from 10 to 2,500 acres or more. Some specific advantages of prescribed burns include:
- stimulating prairie grass growth and improve habitat for upland game and waterfowl;
- creating pockets of open water for waterfowl amidst cattails proliferating in low areas;
- improving cover type for upland nesting birds, such as pheasants, and spur native vegetative growth for songbirds; and
- helping preserve grassland, savanna, and many forest plant communities sustained by natural fires prior to intensive European settlement
Reasons to use fire
Without the use of prescribed burning as a management tool, Wisconsin could lose many of its native grassland, wetland, woodland plant communities. For thousands of years, vast, sweeping wildfires, set primarily by Native Americans, were as much a part of the pre-settlement Wisconsin environment as rain, drought and the passing of the seasons. Because frequent fire played a significant role in the development of much of Wisconsin's native plant communities for thousands of years, many plant and animal species now depend on fire for their continued existence.
For example, prairie grasses and flowers develop deep roots and buds beneath the soil, enabling them to withstand the heat of a fire while shallow rooted invasive brush succumbs. In addition, our oak ecosystems rely on fire to remove accumulated leaf litter, dead trees and invading brush, maintaining the open character of oak savannas, and in general, keeping oak on the landscape. These fires have been all but eliminated in Wisconsin in the last 150 years.
When burning occurs
Prescribed burning typically occurs during the early spring (March through May) and late fall (November), but can occur beyond these periods if conditions allow. These are the periods when conditions allow for safe burning, and generally when desirable plant and animal species are less active. In the spring this typically means between the time that snow has melted and significant green-up has occurred. In the fall, this is typically after some good hard frosts and before winter precipitation.
Before any burn is conducted, experienced and trained personnel assess the area to determine the wind direction and speed, relative humidity, grass moisture and safety requirements. Qualified personnel control fire behavior through the use of comprehensive planning and specialized fire equipment. Local police and fire officials are notified when and where burns will take place, so they can respond to people who report that they are seeing smoke from an area.
Smoke control is an important aspect of any prescribed burn plan. Prior to burning, experienced personnel carefully review the burn area and the proximity of houses, roads and other smoke sensitive areas. This information is then incorporated into the plan and the prescribed burn occurs when favorable conditions (e.g., wind) minimize the amount of smoke reaching these areas.