NATIONAL LAKESHORE: Annual burns aim to cut fuels, promote growth
PORTER — The rising smoke and blackened vegetation may seem appropriate to the Halloween season, but three controlled burns coming to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore this fall are all treat and no trick for the park.
The controlled, or prescribed, burns will have a number of benefits, Fire Management Officer Louis Hartjes said. They are designed to eliminate fuels that could endanger residences and property in the case of a wildfire. The fires can also control invasive weeds while stimulating the growth of fire-hardy native plants.
The fires maintain the health and habitats of park species. For example, the area’s endangered Karner blue butterfly eats only lupine, a flower that needs open savanna lands regenerated by fire in order to thrive.
Specially trained and equipped wildland firefighters will conduct the burns, as conditions permit. Hartjes said it will probably be another two weeks, due to a late leaf fall. The leaves need to be on the ground because they represent a major component of the fuel that park officials seek to eliminate. Also, a frost is needed first to kill off low vegetation that would otherwise be too moist to burn well.
Actual burn dates will not be known until the last minute as officials watch the weather. Information on the burns, which can be scheduled only 24 hours in advance, will be distributed to nearby residents beforehand.
Park fire officials will look for a precise combination of factors — temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and wind direction — before giving the go-ahead to start the prescribed fires. The conditions are prescribed by park fire regulations, hence the name.
While the park is exempt from some air quality restrictions, self-imposed restrictions are designed to reduce the impact on surrounding residents, Hartjes said. Weather conditions must allow the smoke to rise a minimum of 1,600 feet into the sky. The park also specifies preferred wind directions to keep the smoke away from populated areas.
Burn plans emphasize the safety of local residents, park visitors, park employees and firefighters, Hartjes said.
Since 1986, the National Lakeshore has conducted 87 controlled burns on 6,183 acres of parkproperty.