As a cub reporter, I was dispatched to a grass fire north of Grand Rapids that had charred several acres of grassland, sending sheets of white smoke across nearby U.S. 131.
Nature’s fury did not spark the April 1987 fire. A man cleaning his yard placed a top-heavy Christmas tree into a burn barrel and lit a match.
Flames spread to nearby grass when the engulfed tree toppled. A tangled garden hose was no help against the quickly spreading grass fire, which consumed his barn and 80 acres before firefighters brought it under control four hours later.
As spring burning gets under way, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources once again asks property owners to exercise common sense: Avoid burning on windy days, have a garden hose ready and make sure the fire is extinguished before going inside.
“If you are burning yard debris such as leaves, twigs or dead brush, you are required under state law to have a burn permit,” said Paul Kollmeyer, DNR fire prevention specialist.
Burn permits can be obtained from local fire departments in southern Michigan. In northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, contact the DNR or a U.S. Forest Service office.
Spring burns for generations have marked the passage of winter.
Native Americans occasionally burned grasslands to maintain ecological balance and improve habitat for deer and wild turkey. Occasional burning gets rid of undergrowth, provides nutrients to the soil and allows more desirable plants to take hold once competition is reduced.
A storage area at The Nature Conservancy’s field office in Comstock Park is filled with everything you’d need to get a good fire going. But don’t call them to torch a backyard brush pile. The equipment will be used by trained volunteers in upcoming weeks to set controlled fires in Mattawan, near Kalamazoo, and in Newaygo County.
Rejuvenating the land with fire helps ensure survival of native species ranging from wild flowers to the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.
“Areas we are burning are remnants of prairie or oak-savanna habits, where the plants evolved to burn on a fairly regular basis,” said John Legge, director of The Nature Conservancy’s West Michigan Program Office. “In order for the plants to maintain themselves and compete, they need a burn going on across the landscape to get rid of old vegetation and release nutrients back into the soil.”
When naturally occurring fires are repeatedly doused by fire fighters, the ecological balance gets out of whack. Healthy wetlands, prairie and woodlands get overrun with plants that otherwise would be killed by fire, including non-natives such as spotted knapeweed and spotted St. Johnswort.
“From an aesthetic point of view, some of the most beautiful Great Lakes habitats are the native prairies and savannas,” Legge said. “They look much better than a weed-infested old field.”
Beyond aesthetics, there are certain plants and animals that only survive in open habitats created by occasional burning. The list includes wildflowers such as prairie smoke, wild lupine, blazing star and butterfly weed, a native milkweed producing bright orange flowers.
“We’ve been very successful at suppressing fires for reasonable reasons, but most of the landscape in our part of Michigan had fire moving through it every 30 to 40 years, and it is very beneficial,” Legge said.
Controlled burns are part of the Nature Conservancy’s devotion to animal, plant and natural resource preservation. The local point man is fire specialist Jack McGowan-Stinski, who has a checklist two pages long that accompanies him to each controlled burn. It includes 17 types of hand tools, 14 pieces of personal protective equipment and 24 items to keep fires under control, such as water tanks mounted to ATVs and hundreds of feet of hose.
“The people out there running around in yellow suits know what they are doing,” McGowan-Stinski said.
It sure beats tending a burn barrel with a tangled garden hose.