Fire Any Time? – by Nate Simons

As we try to recreate a culture of fire within our remnant and restorable prairie-oak ecosystem at home here in Lakes Country, we grapple with the question of “When should we burn?” So we look for clues from the past in order to carry on the tradition that has been handed to us by the folks who lived here before us.

Typically, land managers within the last forty years have focused on lighting fires to prairies and open oak woodlands in the spring. The fuel, oak leaves, dried grasses and wildflowers, is “cured” and dry and brown and burns readily. At recently-attended Michigan Prescribed Fire Council meetings, we listened to land managers who indicate that we are losing ground to the shade of invasive shrubs and non-oak, non-fire dependent trees. In other words, we are losing the battle to restore our fire-dependent prairie-oak ecosystems to shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant ecosystems because we can’t keep up with the number of acres that need to be burned regularly. One limiting factor to putting more fire on the ground is the practice of holding tightly to the recent tradition of burning only in the spring.

In our quest to restore more of our home landscape and to create a culture of fire, we are encouraged by the vanguard to look at as many opportunities as possible to light fire outside of the “normal” burn window. But did the region burn historically at other times of the year? We all have heard anecdotally of fire in the fall. In fact the colloquialism “Indian Summer” refers to the autumnal warm-up after a hard, killing frost. Our European forefathers coined the term referring to the smoky, hazy skies that resulted from late fall fires set by their aboriginal neighbors…skies that looked like the hazy skies on a muggy August evening.

But what about fire in the summer? Apparently the Potawatomi also burned the prairies and oak openings during the growing season as well. Below, and once again, is an excerpt from James Fenimor Cooper’s Oak Openings.

[Note: The bee-hunter was named Ben Boden or le Bourdon. Just prior to their marriage under the bur oak cathedral (see the November issue of Rustling Grass for that account), he and Margery had attended a council meeting of the Potawatomi and were on their way back to their camp in the oak openings adjacent to the Kalamazoo River. As the story began in late July, 1812, this seen likely took place in early August.]

“Boden and Margery had much to say to each other in that walk, which had a great deal about it to bring their thoughts within the circle of their own existence. As has been said, the fire had run through that region late, and the grasses were still young, offering but little impediment to their movements. As the day was now near its heat, le Bourdon led his spirited, but gentle companion, through the groves, where they had the benefit of the most delicious shade, a relief that was getting to be very grateful.”

Fire during the growing season has the positive effect of setting back brush and fire-intolerant trees better and for a longer period of time than fire in the spring. Fire during the growing season stimulates a new flush of grasses and wildflowers (especially legumes) which increases foraging ad grazing by ungulates. And if the entire area is not burned, the resulting patchiness and heterogeneity creates a more diverse habitat that can lead to more opportunities for nectaring by pollinators. In effect, the burned wildflowers sprout and bloom again later thereby extending the flowering period of the forbs.

We will be looking for more opportunities to experiment with summer fires as we did a few summers ago in Karner Blue Butterfly habitat in western Michigan.

Members of the Blue Crew string fire in an oak woods in Newaygo County Michigan to stimulate Karner Blue Butterfly habitat
Photo by Nate Simons

And what about winter? Yes, when there is no snow on the ground and the relative humidity is low enough, the short days still provide opportunities to burn. The Blue Heron Ministries crew ventured into the (prairie) field in early January with sub-freezing temperatures to cozy-up next to the fire. With no water to defend against mishaps (we had very good fire control lines) and at 22 degrees, fire still did its job to maintain the prairies. We conducted 6 prescribed fires the second week after the new year.

Josh stringing fire in an early January 2020 prescribed fire
Photo by Nate Simons

And in the spirit of recreating a culture of fire, John Brittenham took the opportunity that a weekend warm-up provided prior to this last snowfall to teach his 6-year old son, David, how to carefully burn a prairie.

David torch and water sprayer
Photo by John Brittenham


So with the erratic weather that has produced wetter than “normal” springs and falls, our new normal might be to take care of the land similarly to the traditions of people who lived here before we moved in. We can live into those traditions and burn any time conditions are favorable to carry fire…because that is when fires happened historically in our neck of the woods.

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