Spring Time is Prescribed Fire Time in Iowa

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Adam Janke
Wildlife Specialist
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Spring is just around the corner and that means it’s time to get the planter ready and to start watching the fields for the right conditions to return after a long winter. But for many Iowa landowners, spring time means more than just planting season, it’s prescribed fire season.

Iowa’s native grasslands, forests, and wetlands were burned by Native Americans for thousands of years before European settlement. Therefore, most of Iowa’s native plants, and the wildlife that depend on them, have become adapted to the flush of nutrients created by the combustion of previous year’s plant growth and changes in plant structure that combustion creates.  Fires create critical patches of bare ground that young birds like pheasants and quail feed in and can also be a tool to fight invasive weeds or trees in grass fields. Further, when there is sufficient growth remaining in pastures to carry a fire, burning enhances forage quality by stimulating new succulent and nitrogen-rich plant growth – a phenomenon that was once essential to bison in Iowa’s native prairies and exploited by Native Americans that used fire to attract them for hunting.

Prescribed fire can be an important land management practice in a wide range of habitats. Grasslands, like Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields, idle areas on the farm, savannahs, or roadsides often benefit from fire every 3-5 years. Forested areas take longer to accumulate sufficient leaf litter and woody debris, or fuels, to carry a fire and therefore burn over longer intervals generally 10-15 years. Landowners can gauge the need for prescribed fire in grasslands by the number of tree seedlings in the field or how thick the residual grasses from previous years’ growth is at the ground level.

prescribed fire burnPrescribed fire requires careful planning, coordination with local authorities and neighbors, and close attention to weather patterns that can affect the way fire behaves once lit.  Humidity affects the rate at which the fire burns. Winds propel the fire and fan the flames. Atmospheric conditions determine where the smoke goes.

Fuels should be cleared from fire breaks through raking, mowing, or disking around the field or woodlot and should be at least twice as wide as the length of the flames they are intended to halt.

All of these considerations should be carefully anticipated in a Burn Plan developed in advance of the fire and meticulously checked off the day of the burn to ensure all conditions are suitable and all preparations have been made. This will include communicating with the local fire department to notify them of your intent to burn and to inquire about local ordinances or restrictions. Also, if you are considering conducting a burn on land under a federal contract like CRP, be sure to check with your local USDA office to ensure it is an authorized practice. Plus, you can often find advice or even cost share opportunities through state or federal programs for habitat management practices like prescribed fire while at the USDA office.

If you satisfy all your check boxes, your fire should go off without a hitch, and you should reap the benefits for years to come, first watching the healthy plant growth return quickly this spring and then watching the wildlife or cattle respond positively to the reinvigorated vegetation for years to come.

Additional resources for performing prescribed fire in Iowa:

Date of Publication: 
March, 2017