Across metro Detroit, fires set to control invasive species

Across metro Detroit, fires set to control invasive species

09 April 2012

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USA — Fire and parks officials in southeast Michigan are waiting for the wind to blow their way so they can set parks and preserves on fire.

Controlled burns, often associated with forests and large parks, are used so native plants can regain their stronghold in lands taken over by invasive species. They also are useful in urban parks as a way to repair off-kilter ecosystems, ecologists and parks officials said.

Parts of Belle Isle in Detroit were ablaze Thursday. Southfield’s first controlled burn was Friday at Valley Woods Nature Preserve, near office buildings and houses at Telegraph and Franklin Road.

The fires were set to kill plants such as phragmites and canary grass, non-native invaders that choke out native irises, skunk cabbages, cattails and sedges that local reptiles, amphibians and water birds call home.

“It’s a very good way to manage invasive species,” said Merrie Carlock, City of Southfield park planner. “They don’t have any wildlife value.”

Forest fires, often vilified for the toll they take on structures and people, are many times a natural phenomenon that serves a purpose — to clear forests for new growth and to help seeds germinate. Manmade controlled burns are similar, said ecologist Gary Crawford of ECT, an environmental consultancy in Ann Arbor, who was at the Southfield burn.

The fires clear out undergrowth, burn invasive plants and help plants in an ecosystem recover. On top of that, Crawford said, when invasives take over, the animals that relied on the normal flora for food and shelter take off. That is something Crawford said he has seen on Belle Isle, which has had burns three times during the past five or so years.

Crawford said he thinks something similar is going on at the Valley Woods wetlands in Southfield.

During the next couple of weeks, Crawford said, the goal is to perform controlled burns in parts of Eliza Howell Park and River Rouge Park on Detroit’s west side. Some roads will be closed, and he said the burns will take about 30 minutes each.

Just like much of outdoor life in Michigan, everything depends on the weather.

It is important to pay attention to wind when setting fires, said Paul Muelle, chief of natural resources for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks. This year, the Metroparks have staged controlled burns on about 30 acres each of Kensington and Stony Brook Metroparks.

In addition to invasive non-natives, Muelle said they also go after local shrubs that have started to sprawl.

“We are much more conscious of smoke,” he said. “When the humidity starts to drop, you get those days with a lot of good lift.”

But Crawford said the season is almost over, and park and fire officials are crossing their fingers for a few more dry days with good wind to finish up the burns for the year.

Two burns remain at Springfield Oaks Golf Course and White Lake Oaks Golf Course for non-playable areas surrounding the courses, said Brittany Bird, the natural resources planner for Oakland County Parks.

She said officials talk to neighbors to make sure people know the fires are managed.

Southfield Fire Marshal Jim Dundas said the department also lets people know the fires are not an emergency.

“It will smell very much like someone burning leaves,” he said in advance of the Southfield fire, in which he issued the city’s first burning permit. “Everything looks really good.”

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