In the wild, unfettered fire helps keep prairies healthy. In the suburbs, some judicious fettering is a good thing.
Sunday was the first day this season for Steve Wlodarski and his “small army of environmentalists” to march across Izaak Walton Preserve prairie armed with a little fire and a lot of water.
Their mission was to help nature along with a managed burn of excess dead vegetation.
Wlodarski is the controlled burn coordinator for the preserve. He has been leading the effort since 2008, tapped for the job in part because of his 32 years experience as a volunteer firefighter.
The group of nine volunteers was just about the right size, and the cool, sunny day with only a light breeze made weather conditions just about perfect, too, Wlodarski said.
He said he hopes to get at least three or four more burn sessions in before winter, but the number depends on the weather.
Burning the praire serves several purposes. It can help destroy or limit the growth of invasive species. It improves nutrient absorbtion and moisture retention in the soil. And it helps new growth in the spring.
The latter is something that can give volunteers some real satisfaction, he said, because they can see the result of their efforts. He noted that one year volunteers conducted a burn in the woods on the southwest part of the preserve where oak leaves had accumulated to as much as a foot deep in places.
The burn removed the cap of leaves, and in the spring, the area was carpeted with wild flowers, he said.
On Sunday the team worked on the north side of the preserve, an area Wlodarski said had not been burned since he started coordinating the program.
The team started by creating a firebreak downwind to contain the fire. An experienced volunteer, John Newgard, used a kerosene driptorch to start the back burn. The rest of the team used “mudflap shovels” and portable water sprayers to guide the flames in the right direction.
Several of the volunteers were regulars, but others were from Boy Scout Troop 364. Wlodarski said he gives presentations to the troop and at local schools to educate young people about their prairie and how the controlled burns contribute to its health.
In addition to Newgard, volunteers Sunday included, Ian Anderson, Josiah Brown, Sam Casella, Joseph Cole, Jay Eagle, Zackery Green, Craig Johnson and Mark Leschuck.
Anyone who is interested in helping with future managed burns should contact Wlodarski at 312-420-4939 or write [email protected].