Video: An Inside Look at a Prescribed Burn in Oakland County
(Crystal A. Proxmire, May 24, 2021)
Rose Township, MI – Sometimes to make something stronger and better, you need to burn it to the ground.
That’s the reason why intentional burning of vegetation has been used throughout history to keep forests and farmlands diverse and resilient. Throughout Oakland County parks are maintained with “prescribed burns” in the fall and spring in areas where it’s needed.
According to Oakland County Parks and Recreation, “fire is predominantly utilized by land managers to achieve restoration of native plant communities and invasive species control. Most native plant communities in southern Michigan are adapted to periodic burning and are reliant on them to maintain structure, diversity, nutrient cycling and promoting habitat for wildlife. Furthermore, non-native invasive plants are set back by burning, thus managers can utilize burns to achieve two goals at once.”
In other words, the burning gets rid of invasive species, and it prompts the burn-resistant native plants to speed up their growth.
Oakland County Parks Natural Resources Coordinator Sarah Cook-Maylen works with several local companies that do burns. She told Oakland County Times that each year companies bid and the top ones are approved for the year, with the companies taking turns on which jobs they get. For the prescribed burn in Rose Oaks on April 26, it was David Mindell and his crew at PlantWise, LLC in Ann Arbor that had the honors.
The crew was mindful of the wind direction and speed as they took to burning a wetland area near a wooden boardwalk. Working in small sections with plenty of water on hand, the crew started by burning an area right along the boardwalk which would create a buffer later for the larger burn. The work was similar to how one might color around the edges in a coloring book before more swiftly filling in the middle. Once the safety buffer was clear, two of the controlled burn experts, clad in protective clothing and gear, were able to ride an ORV through the mud and over the bumps and stumps with their cans of fuel and torches helping fire spread through the dried reeds and grass.
Though definitely a mighty site, a controlled burn moves much slower than the wildfires one might see footage of in movies on on the news.
With controlled burns the path is slow and steady. There are times when all they need to do is simply stand by observantly as the line of fire creeps along the ground, gracefully consuming the tiny pine needles, dried leaves, twigs, grass and other plants with a flame that doesn’t even reach one’s knees. There are also the brighter moments, when flames can be seen dancing tall from clear across the fields.
When it’s done the ground is black. Not long after, bright green seedlings start to grow up through the ashes, thriving on the nutrient rich soil left behind and the freedom from competing invasive plants like phragmites.
Rose Township Supervisor Dianne Scheib-Snider was also on hand, welcoming the crew and thanking them for their work. “I don’t have to be here, but I like to come out. If it’s happening in Rose Township I want to see what’s going on,” she said. After years of attending burns she already knew what to expect. But for residents who aren’t familiar, it can be worrisome to see the plume of smoking coming from the precious parkland.
“We make sure the dispatchers know, and the people in the office, because we do sometimes get calls,” she said.
Big orange signs are placed on the roads around the park, and the trails are closed to visitors on the day of a burn. Scheib-Snider posts pictures of the crew at work to quell the curiosity of the neighbors, and to help celebrate what’s being done to keep the parks in top-notch shape.
Mindell is proud to do the work. He started off doing buns in 1995 with the City of Ann Arbor and started his own company in 1998, with prescribed burns being among the wildlife restoration services he provides.
He has a team of people whom he celebrates on his website, and takes care to hire people he can count on to be safe. “We hire people for our restoration field crew, of which fire is one part. Most people don’t come in with previous fire experience so we spend a good deal of time training folks. It generally takes a full burn season to really start to understand some of the basic elements of fire behavior and much longer to get a deeper sense of how fire changes with different sites, fuels, and weather. We look for people who are hard-working, smart, and thoughtful.”
Midell has also been lucky to have his son and daughter helping in the past few years. “I love working with them! It’s very satisfying to see them start to understand and appreciate fire behavior and enjoy the physicality of it,” he said.
The crew has their hands in habitat restoration efforts throughout Michigan and Ohio. And of course he loves being in Oakland County. “I really appreciate the burning that Oakland County Parks does. They have amazingly high quality natural areas and fully recognize the importance of managing their lands to protect rare Michigan species,” he said.
Learn more about Natural Resources Management on the Oakland County Parks website