Fire in the Wisconsin Northwoods

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of exploring the north woods of Treehaven, the UW-Stevens Point research forest in Tomahawk, WI at a workshop called “Fire and our Forests” sponsored by LEAF and UW-Steven’s Point. If you watched the Disney movie Bambi or grew up around Smokey the Bear, you might have some reservations about the idea of forest fires; however, both Bambi and Smokey are concerned about wildfire, which is very different from prescribed fire. 

Prescribed fire is an effective management tool that is characterized by a controlled, low-intensity fire that is only applied to an area under set conditions (e.g., relative humidity, wind speed and direction). Prescribed fire can allow nutrient recycling, invasive species management, and fuel removal (i.e., dead wood, grass, and brush that could potentially feed a wildfire). We conduct prescribed fires at Big Hill with the City of Beloit and Rock County Conservationists to manage our savanna restoration!

 Left to right, top to bottom: Scarring is on the right side of the tree, so we can tell the fire moved from the left side of the forest to the right; Native nations such as the Menominee continue to use fire to manage their forests; The difference in management regimens is pretty amazing; Treehaven is in Tomahawk, WI, and managed by UW-Stevens Point.

Prescribed fire is an effective woodland management tool…

Wildfire is almost the polar opposite of prescribed fire in that it is a high-intensity fire that is destructive and can undergo behavior such as “canopy hopping”, enveloping entire trees and eating up any and all organic material in the soil. Wildfire is typically ignited by nature (i.e., lightning) or man (e.g., leaving a yard brushfire unattended, setting off fireworks) with the latter being the most common. This foundational difference helps to paint a picture of the importance of keeping fire in management plans because the repercussions of fire suppression can be catastrophic, as we continually see in the western United States.

I had the privilege of hearing from Ron Waukau, the forest manager at Menominee Tribal Enterprises, where he told the story of how fire fit in the lives of Native peoples. He showed scanned images of field notebooks from hundreds of years ago, indicating that fire was present in the landscape before we even knew to call it prescribed burning. Fire was actually more common than I originally thought. Burning a field was as commonplace as mowing the lawn or tilling a part of your yard for a garden. It wasn’t something to be feared, and it almost seemed as if the landscape yearned for it.

…that is characterized by a controlled, low-intensity fire.

While snowshoeing through the University forest, I felt like I was meeting up with an old friend named Jack. Growing up in Michigan, I was mesmerized by the cohabitation of some species of trees with the presence of fire, namely the jack pine (Pinus banksiana) because of their serotiny– the dependence on fire to open their cones for reproduction.

What I didn’t know, however, was that because of fire suppression, we had unknowingly created two variations of jack pine: serotinous in the northern Upper Peninsula and Minnesota and non-serotinous in north-central Wisconsin (with some mixed areas where both are present, such as Treehaven UWSP). They are genetically the same tree and cross-breed among each other, but they have adapted to their different fire regimens. HOW WACKY IS THAT?

Another surprising fact I learned was that scars found along a tree indicate where the fire had contact with it the longest, which helps determine the direction in which the fire moved through the forest. The fire acts like a big hug, wrapping around the tree, with the “top” of the flame continually burning the opposite side of the tree from where the fire came.

Learning about the different management regimens being applied in the forest (e.g., burning with no harvest, burning every four years, control) and seeing how that translated in the landscape was incredible. We stood in a spot where I could get three management regimens in the same picture: while standing in a burn-4 plot, I could see a burn-no-harvest plot over my left shoulder and a control plot over my right shoulder (see above photo).

I love finding professional development opportunities like this where I can gather more information to show people! I look forward to finding ways I can implement the benefits of prescribed burns into Welty’s curriculum that would make Smokey and the gang proud.

Darien Becker
Environmental Educator, WEC