Pandemic delays DNR-led burns

17 April 2021

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USA – In a typical spring, burn crews made up of Department of Natural Resources firefighters throughout Minnesota create fires in state parks and other land managed by the state. They burn brush and vegetation in prairie lands using carefully controlled measures.

The crews conduct prescribed burns to help manage vegetation, preserve habitats and reduce brush that could fuel uncontrolled wildfires. Prescribed burns are one of the most critical tools used to manage wildfires today, and they play an important role in many of the area ecosystems.

But the state canceled all DNR-led prescribed burns last spring and fall because of the pandemic.

This spring, the DNR got the go-ahead from the state commissioner’s office to conduct burns again but with tighter protocols. One of the requirements is that coronavirus cases must be below a certain rate in the county the burn is being conducted in.

The recent rise in local cases could delay these burns for another season, although DNR staff hope that some high priority fires can be implemented this spring.

The lost time is harmful to natural resource management efforts because the burns are important for preserving habitats. They help reduce the spread of invasive species that can push out native plants and take over ecosystems. Prescribed burns are conducted in the bison area at Minneopa State Park to improve forage quality for the bison.

“Now we are playing catch-up,” said Molly Tranel Nelson, regional resource specialist for the DNR.

Burns are already difficult to conduct because they require months of planning and can only be done in certain weather conditions during the spring and fall. Too much rain or too dry weather delays a scheduled burn.

This spring the DNR may only conduct burns in counties with have a seven-day rolling rate of 25 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Many burn bosses, such as Tranel Nelson, are watching the daily case count in hopes cases will go down so they can get out into the field.

“It’s really hurting us that we aren’t going to be able to burn because of the higher number of COVID-19 cases,” she said.

The case requirement was put in place because the fires create smoke that can cause additional breathing problems for those suffering from COVID-19.

The list of prescribed burns Tranel Nelson plans to do this spring was also reduced because of restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within burn crews. There are 30 burns she is hoping to conduct this season.

Prescribed burns today replace fires started by lightning and Indigenous peoples before European settlers arrived. Fires helped push back trees and keep prairies from becoming brushlands and forests.

“A lot of these landscapes depend on fire, just like they depend on rain and sun to maintain themselves,” said Casey McCoy, DNR fire prevention supervisor.

Prescribed burns now are performed on a rotation and burns are conducted at a certain location ideally every five years, Tranel Nelson said. When burn seasons are shortened or canceled, it pushes back the schedule. The delay means prairies may get overtaken by invasive species, trees and shrubs.

With prescribed burns canceled last year, the DNR used other methods to preserve prairies.

Goats have been eating invasive species and shrubs at Flandrau State Park for the past few years. The goats are being brought back to Flandrau this week for another season.

A couple of other parks are starting to bring in goats as well to help with the efforts.

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