Management by fire

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

MARBLE HILL, Mo. -- On March 18, a group of 18 firefighters set fire to 10 acres of land in an area below the dam at Lake Girardeau. They were just doing their job.

The firefighters are part of a larger group known as the Forestry Strike Team, in existence now for about a year. The team is made up of firefighters from fire districts in Delta, Leopold, Marble Hill and Sedgewickville and others from Whitewater, Delta and Millersville who volunteer with the Department of Conservation. They learn how to put out accidental wildland fires and have been learning how to do a prescribed burn to replenish the land. In turn, the Department of Conservation provides them training and equipment to accomplish those goals.

Although the first Missouri settlers burned underbrush to clear the land and attract wildlife, and farmers have been clearing fields with fire for decades, prescribed burns are fairly new to conservation efforts in Southeast Missouri, said Marty Calvert, a forester with the Department of Conservation.

"It's a handy way to manage vegetation," he said.

The Lake Girardeau area was one of several the DOC chose for prescribed burns around the state because it has poor soil, and burning adds nutrients. The 10 acres burned are part of an area below the dam from which soil was taken to build the dam. It offered no good habitat for wildlife, Calvert said. Later this spring, the DOC will go back and plant warm season grasses, such as Indian grass and little bluestem, with the intention of providing food and protection for turkey and quail and possibly some songbirds.

Lightning not reliable

Lightning or an accidental spark caused by an animal walking on flintrock used to be the only way to start a fire that would clear out an area and make way for regrowth. But Calvert said lightning strikes only account for about 1 percent of wildland fires -- not enough to depend on.

Some groups wanted to "just let things happen" in conservation areas, said John Sachen, a fire instructor with the University of Missouri and a member of the Forestry Strike Team and the Delta Fire Protection District. Prescribed burns have been off-limits to the DOC for years.

But what happened wasn't always what should have happened, Sachen said. If an area didn't burn naturally, then the foldover from vegetation would keep seeds from native plants from sprouting as they would have after a burn. With farming and property development, some non-native plants were brought in and began taking root. In some instances, Sachen said, a layer of vegetative buildup might create a hazard to adjoining developed property.

Although fires can be devastating in the western United States, in this part of the country they're a means of land management. Vegetation in the West is more coniferous and soft wood, which burns more rapidly than the harder deciduous trees in the Midwest. Fires that start in the West tend to get out of control. In this part of the country, burning with control is possible, even desirable, Calvert said.

Expects greater use

Sachen predicts that prescribed burns will be used more and more in the Midwest as conservation agencies and farmers study and recognize their value.

Calvert said he learned the value of having a Forestry Strike Team when he worked in Lebanon, Mo., where arson fires were more frequent and a team was needed that specialized in fighting wildland fires. While DOC works closely with about 900 rural fire departments in the state, according to its Web site, only Lebanon and Marble Hill have organized into a strike force.

When he came to work in Bollinger County, Calvert found a group of firefighters who were accustomed to putting out structure fires but were also interested in learning how to manage wildland fires and had already formed a small informal squad. The notion of working as a larger group with the DOC took off like, well, wildfire.

The DOC has provided the Forestry Strike Team with the training and the equipment, and they have learned not only how to put out wildfires but how to start and manage a prescribed burn. The DOC also provided the Forestry Strike Team with bright yellow fire-retardant shirts easily visible in smoke.

Thirty-eight firefighters from Bollinger County districts and a few from Cape Girardeau County now train with and apply the techniques they have acquired for the DOC.

Student help

In addition, a group of students working with the AmeriCorps program through the Mingo Job Corps Center in Stoddard County is working alongside the forestry strike force and learning how to build firebreaks and use natural firebreaks such as roads, lakes and other bodies of water. They learn how to start a controlled burn downwind and burn back into an area before moving the fire to the sides and upwind.

"It's a slow, methodical process," Sachen said.

The entire process has been a morale booster as well as job training for the AmeriCorps students, Sachen said, and has added another dimension to firefighting and conservation in Southeast Missouri.

335-6611, extension 160

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