News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Huron-Manistee National Forests use prescribed fire to restore land

Prescribed fire in Knox Bottom Montana
Courtesy Photo
U.S. Forest Service
Prescribed fire in Knox Bottom, Montana

Prescribed fire has been used nationwide to reduce wildfire risk for years. In the Huron-Manistee National Forests, the fire is used for much more, including restoring native fire-dependent plants, maintaining habitats and transitioning area terrain.

Wildfire Prevention and Risk Reduction

In February, $500 million of national funding went toward expanding wildfire reduction efforts in national forests.

The Huron-Manistee National Forest has been using prescribed fire-controlled wildfire within a supervised area- to reduce the potential damage of wildfires in the forest.

A layer of duff — leaves, needles, litter and woody material — forms on the forest floor creates what the forest service calls “hazardous fuels” which is the main fuel for wildfires. By burning it, the potential damage of a forest fire is reduced.

Much of the northern Michigan forest is Red and Jack Pine, two types of trees that depend on fire for their seeds to grow. Fire and Fuel Specialist for the Forest Service, Brian Stearns, says when an area is burned for “hazardous fuel reduction” it promotes the growth of these fire dependent trees and contributes to the preservation of many threatened birds, like the Kirtland Warbler.

Prescribed Burn Process

Before a burn, biologists survey the land to ensure that fire is the best tool to use in the area. Wildlife, wildlife habitats, plants and economic impact are studied before a burn is prescribed.

Botanists are especially important at this point in the process because of the frequent fire history across the northern Michigan landscape.

Goals for different areas in the forest determine the tools used. Huron-Manistee Public Affairs Officer, Travis Owens, says the burn team's goals can range from maintaining or creating openings, transitioning an open area to a wooded area and habitat or species management.

A fire's potential impact on nearby communities is also studied before a burn is prescribed and carried out. The day of a burn is selected based on a variety of weather factors and is surveyed again before the burn begins, to ensure the conditions remain as predicted.

According to Stearns, a “laundry list” of organizations and individuals are notified before a burn is carried out.

Burn teams pay close attention to what they call smoke receptors- places like highways, schools and hospitals- and consider how a burn in the area could impact those places.

“There are regional folks that we have to coordinate with and then smoke specialists,” says Stearns.

Property owners can also request to be notified when a burn is taking place in their area. Local emergency response agencies and volunteer organizations are informed of the burn plan and are prepared for concerned residents calling in about smoke.

Owens says notifications are sent out and posted on social media platforms on burn days and details of the burn are included on social media.

Follow-up on burned areas

According to Stearns, areas that have experienced wildfire after being treated by the forestry department are studied differently.

“We study those a little closer than just the normal wildfire, just to see what kind of efficacy our fuel programs are having,” says Stearns.

Stearns also says the forestry department has “an obligation to continue to patrol and secure” areas that experience wildfires. It often takes days after a wildfire has occurred to secure the area.

“It is possible to get to a point where our staff is so involved in maintaining those fires that we don't have enough staff to prescribe burn, in which case the priority goes to wildfire.” Stearns says.

How Prescribed Burns are used in the Huron-Manistee

Stearns says prescribed burning has been happening in the forest since the 60s or 70s. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a decrease in burnings but in recent years, the forest has been making efforts to prescribe burns again.

The goals for the Huron-Manistee can be broken down into two levels- national and forest.

The broad goals, or national plan, for prescribed burns in Michigan's national forest are to reduce fuels, reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfire and the protection of communities, life and property.

More specifically, the forest has objectives for how much acreage of openings or prairie spaces should be maintained, habitat maintenance and terrain transitions.

Many of the native plants in the Huron-Manistee forests need fire to propagate. As the state populated, fire in these areas decreased causing the native plants to suffer from mesophication- the process of fire being removed from fire-dependent plants.

Prescribed fire is used to reduce and reverse mesophication for our native plants that have become endangered.

“When prescribed fire goes across the surface it removes litter and accumulations of needles and leaves,” says Stearns. “That opens up the bare soil where seeds can fall, and they can germinate.”

Without frequent fire, duff- litter, leaves and pine needles- accumulates on the forest floor and prevents seeds from reaching the soil.

“It’s just like if you were to put a tarp on your lawn for a week or two, you pull it back and there's yellow grass, that's what the litter does.” Stearns said.

Fire return intervals are considered during the planning of a prescribed burn. According to Stearns, by monitoring the areas and consulting historic records, they can determine when fire-use is needed.

Stearns says, less frequent higher intensity burns would be planned for areas of Jack Pine- a crucial habitat for the endangered Kirtlands Warbler songbird. He says many creatures depend on Jack Pine’s reproductive process for survival. Due to the lack of natural fire in the area, the pine’s serotinous cones- the trees seeds are in the pinecones, this variety requires a brief blast of heat to release the seeds for propagation- cannot reproduce properly.

“A lot of them are threatened or endangered because of that, so fire return intervals are a little bit higher.” Stearns said.

The degree of fire needed can also be predicted and allows for less extreme treatment to be used.

Prescribed burns and burn permit restrictions

Stearns says that residents are often confused when prescribed burns happen during “no burn days”.

“The agencies and folks that are trained and equipped to do those burns are picking those days because they have good burn windows within them so we’re burning under the conditions outlined in our burn plan,” Stearns said.

Residents with burn permits must follow different regulations when it comes to burning under certain conditions. If the state designates a “no burn day” because of an increased risk of wildfires, residents must contain their fires properly.

“We’re burning with the appropriate amount of resources to contain that, whereas the private citizen can't just open debris burn,” Stearns says. “They could, in theory, still burn in a proper burn barrel or container, but there’s a distinguishable difference between the agencies burning on a no burn day and somebody burning leaves in the backyard.”

Draya Raby is a newsroom intern for WCMU based at the Cadillac News.