Prescribed burns dot the landscape, Valley reaps ecological benefits

Two minor wildfires burn less than an acre in Spring Green, DNR reminds that a majority of wildfires happen in spring.

Taylor Scott, Managing Editor


The flames of a prescribed fire rush up the side of the dry bluff prairie at the Spring Green Prairie preserve. Staff created fire breaks along each side of the burn to make sure the flames wouldn’t spread to the woods above. Photo by Emily Mills/The Nature Conservancy

Spring is here and with it brings an increasing risk of wildfires, with two small wildfires burning a combined 0.30 acres in Spring Green over the weekend. On Saturday alone, there were 36 fires burning over 100 acres across the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Five structures were burned and several more were threatened. None of those structures were in the Spring Green area.

The DNR reports that, so far this year, 47% of wildfires were caused by debris burning, the leading cause of Wisconsin’s wildfires. Wildfires can happen just about any time of the year, but historically, 60% of all annual wildfires in Wisconsin occur in March, April and May alone.

The first wildfire occurred on Saturday afternoon at a residential address on Jones Road.

The fire was “caused by the owner working in his yard cutting metal fence parts up with a grinding wheel,” said Scott Lancaster, local forester-ranger for the DNR. “Sparks ignited dry grass in his yard, spread rapidly, was contained on his property and suppressed by Spring Green Fire Department.”

The Jones Road fire was contained to 0.10 acres, according to the DNR.

The second wildfire occurred along Big Hollow Road on Sunday. It was caused “by high winds pushing a dead tree over onto electric transmission lines, sparking to the ground, and igniting the dry grass along the road. This fire was actioned quickly and contained to the powerline right-of-way and a few tree rows on the edge of pine forest,” said Lancaster. “This fire just burned surface vegetation of grass, shrubs and pine needles and not entire trees. This fire was contained to 0.20 acres and suppressed by DNR and Spring Green Fire Department.”

Spring Green Fire Department Chief Lin Gunderson said the wildfires could have been worse.

“I was told the one on Big Hollow with a different wind direction could have been very bad,” said Gunderson.

Both wildfires were coincidentally close to prescribed burns that occurred in the Spring Green Preserve over the weekend.

“Neither wildland fires were related to the recent prescribed burning. While close in proximity, each wildfire was caused by unrelated events,” said Lancaster.

“The primary purpose for prescribed burns is for ecological benefit to reduce invasive species, allowing native plants to grow and sustain themselves and keep those types of ecosystems going,” said Ralph Sheffer, forest ranger for the DNR. “That also does allow for fire prevention in that if there is another fire in that area if it gets to those spots that have been burned, essentially they run out of fuel to burn, or there’s less fuel there. So the fire behavior at that time, when it hits that, is greatly reduced and much easier to control.”

Sheffer encouraged fire safety tips such as paying attention to the weather, avoiding burning on windy days or very high fire danger days and making sure that the fire is completely out before leaving it.

“Check our website, we update our website daily as far as what burning restrictions are in place with fire danger for that day.”

“We encourage burning for natural resources,” said Sheffer. “We just want to make sure that it’s done as safely as possible.”

Gunderson said the Spring Green Fire Department has only done one prescribed burn so far this year, along HWY 14 on Monday, but they have received one other request and anticipate conducting a burn of a prairie on River Valley School District grounds in the next week.

Gunderson said it’s hard to plan for doing prescribed burns.

“There are so many factors; weather-snow-rain, maybe it’s good and dry for burning but windy. Another factor for us is availability of fire personnel to assist, as we know everybody has jobs,” said Gunderson.

Gunderson offered advice for those wishing to do prescribed burns.

“Make sure anyone that is planning on doing a burn that they check the DNR website for current conditions, they obtain a permit, follow the guidelines and have safety measures in place, they should also call the respective law enforcement dispatch center prior to burning and then when they have completed the burn.”

He also cautioned against individual debris burning. 

“If an individual lives in the village of Spring Green they are not to burn any yard waste (leaves, grass, branches etc.), those items are to be taken to the village dump,” said Gunderson. “I can’t speak for any of the other villages in the Valley, but they should check to see if there are any burning restrictions.”

Prescribed burns at the Spring Green Preserve

The Nature Conservancy is one of the groups working to prevent uncontrolled wildfires while fostering the unique ecology of the ‘Wisconsin Desert’ through prescribed burns.

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the Spring Green Preserve, just north of the village, which they describe as “a land of cacti and lizards, sand dunes and dry grasses… known as the Wisconsin Desert… a place where forest meets bluff , and bluff levels off into plains and dunes.”

Designated a State Natural Area in 1972, the preserve features life seen rarely or nowhere else in Wisconsin. From prickly pear cactus to ornate box turtles to black widow spiders and more, the preserve is home to some of Wisconsin’s rarest plant communities, including sand prairie, dry bluff prairie, and black oak barrens, according to The Nature Conservancy. All of these communities, which once covered thousands of acres, have all but disappeared.

The primary goals of The Nature Conservancy at the preserve are to remove red cedars that invade the prairies and shade out native plant species and use controlled fires to suppress competing trees and shrubs, to stimulate the growth of native grasses and wildflowers.

According to Caleb Klima, land manager for The Nature Conservancy, 138 acres of the Spring Green Preserve were burned in a prescribed burn of the eastern bluffs on March 19, with another 76 acres burned the next day on the western bluffs, adding to 22 acres burned on March 4.

TNC Wisconsin’s Director of Conservation & Land Management, Hannah Spaul, uses a drip torch to set fire to a section of dry grasses on the eastern unit of the Spring Green Prairie preserve. (Photo by Emily Mills/The Nature Conservancy)

“A main objective is, as you can probably just see, if I’m looking out at Spring Green [Preserve], those are the only bluffs that are open, everything else has been filled in with trees,” said Klima. “And that kind of shows us that if you don’t put prescribed fire on the ground out there, those bluffs are going to get choked out with trees very quickly.”

Klima said they rotate burning different sections of the preserve every year, to allow refuge for different species to survive.

“Prior to European settlement, most of those bluffs would have been wide open, like those [on the Spring Green Preserve], because of frequent prescribed fire done mostly by the Native Americans,” explained Klima. “So there’s a lot of species that require that kind of open habitat in order to thrive unique species that require that kind of disturbance of prescribed fire.”

Moderate winds and dry conditions bolstered the efforts of fire stewards, who set this prescribed fire along the bottom, top, and edges of the dry bluff at Spring Green Prairie. (Video by Emily Mills/The Nature Conservancy)

Klima says they want to dispel the stigma of fire always being a negative thing.

“We like to call it good fire, I think a lot of people hear plenty about bad fire, especially as relates to like Western fires and everything. So we try to keep it designated by calling it a good fire, or obviously, it’s called prescribed fire/controlled burning,” said Klima. “These landscapes evolved with this fire disturbance, so a lot of the species that thrive out there, whether that’s the grasses, or the cactus, or any reptiles and other types of animals, they need that periodic disturbance, particularly prescribed fire, to really thrive.”

A view of the aftermath of a prescribed burn in the Spring Green Nature Preserve on Saturday. Klima says to expect the preserve to be “lush and green” in a couple of weeks. (Photo by Nicole Aimone, Editor-in-Chief)

Klima stressed the need to put more good fire back on the landscape, emphasizing that it’s not just prairie that needs periodic fire to thrive, but also oak woodlands and savannas and others, warning that otherwise these areas will turn to maple and basswood forests.

“If you leave a site unburned or undisturbed for very long, you’ll clearly see that they come in very quickly,” said Klima, elaborating that species like honeysuckle, buckthorn, red cedar and garlic mustard can move in and out-compete the species that are native to this ecosystem. “We actually have saw some burning bush out there, and Japanese barberry. So you get a lot of these ornamental shrubs that come from landscaping around people’s homes. And then they escape into the wild, and they cause us a lot of issues.”

TNC Wisconsin’s Director of Conservation & Land Management, Hannah Spaul, uses a drip torch to set fire to a section of dry grasses on the eastern unit of the Spring Green Prairie preserve.

Klima says that The Nature Conservancy works closely with local fire departments and the DNR. “We have the equipment, people and the resources to get it done safely.”

Klima said they’re always looking for volunteers to assist with different aspects of the preserve and invasive plant removal. If there’s enough interest they’d like to create a volunteer crew again for the preserve. To volunteer, fill out a short form online here, call 608-316-6430 or email: WIVolunteer@tnc.org.

A view looking down from the east bluffs on the remains of the prescribed burn on March 20. (Photo by Nicole Aimone, Editor-in-Chief)

Klima expects there to be at least one more prescribed burn at the preserve this spring, occurring on the north side on County Road WC next to Wilson Creek.

“Prescribed fire is really like nature’s ultimate regenerator, it really quickens the pace of recycling the nutrients back in.”


If you go to the Spring Green Preserve

Please stay on the trail during your visit as it will eventually take you to the top of the bluff. To avoid damaging the fragile habitat on the slope, please do not hike straight up or down the bluff.

Hours

Open year-round, dawn to dusk.

Driving directions

From the intersection of Highways 14 and 23 north of Spring Green, go north on 23 0.5 mile, then east on Jones Road 0.75 mile (just past fire #E5196A), then north on Angelo Lane to a parking area.


Story has been updated to include comments from Spring Green Fire Department Chief Lin Gunderson.


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