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The Scarlet & Black

Students train to tend wildfires in bloom

By Christopher Squier

Students may recognize the landscape at the Conard Environment Research Center (CERA) bursting into wildflower blooms from the common desktop background featured on many public computers on campus. Only a select group of trained individuals, however, will get to see this same landscape burst into flames at scheduled burns where the students themselves will aid in starting and controlling the fire.

Larissa Mottl, Biological Field Station Manager at the Center for Prairie Studies, spoke to a group of about a dozen students, staff and community members interested in helping with prescribed burning this last Thursday, Feb. 24.

“It helps students understand how critical fire is in the maintenance and restoration of the land that used to be the historic landscape that this campus is built on and that the agriculture of this state is built on,” Mottl said. “The prairies were the foundation of our agricultural soil, so we’re trying to restore and renew some of those original habitats.”

The site for burn sessions, which this group and about thirty to forty previously trained individuals can now participate in, is the Conard Environmental Research Center, a 365-acre plot of prairie, savanna, woodland and natural Iowa habitat located southeast of Kellogg and just south of the interstate.

“We don’t have any really huge areas that we burn,” Mottl said. “They’re usually relatively small, because we want to leave some habitat unburned as refuges for the animals living out there.”

In a season, the trained burn crew typically oversees the burning of from two or three to even seven areas.

A student volunteer, Peter Macfarlane ’12, has helped in previous years and in an email from South Africa he described his experience with prescribed burning.

“I enjoy helping with the prescribed burning because I get to see the power of the fire in the prairie,” Macfarlane said. “Seeing all of the plant life shoot up in the days following the fire is also amazing because it shows just how well-adapted the prairie plants are to fire.”

“Volunteers experience the power of fire in the prairie,” Mottl said. “It’s really quite impressive, and not only in the prairie but in all habitats in Iowa.”

The landscape at CERA ranges from forest habitats to aquatic and wetland habitats, which have not yet received the burn treatment.

“We should be trying to burn [the wetland habitats] as well,” Mottl said. “All of our landscape in Iowa is adapted to fire and we need to use fire as a management tool.”

The spring burn season is just beginning and usually ranges from March, as soon as there is no snow on the ground, until mid-April. After that, the high humidity and a combination of other factors prevent good conditions for burning, until the late fall season in November and early December.

All the burns are highly controlled and Mottl has training to oversee burns and fight fires through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a federal agency that provides standardized coursework for all firefighting, from prescribed burning to fighting large wildfires in the West.

In addition to Mottl, Bob Groenendyk also serves as a CERA Technician and has an extensive amount of field experience, having helped with burns at CERA for over 20 years.

“He and I are the leaders in conducting prescribed fire and the people you will be working with if you help us out at CERA,” Mottl said.

Although fire is an innately dangerous material, Mottl and Groenendyk take many measures to ensure the overall process occurs without a hitch and with maximum safety.

“We do one-on-one instruction on how to use the tools, and to teach the things that we think about while we’re implementing fire out there, what to look for, things to be careful about, contingency plans, that sort of thing,” Mottl said.

Controlled burns can help with a variety of problems, from the promotion of biological diversity to the control of invasive species and education. A number of biology classes conduct experiments on the impacts of fire, whether they’re interested in soil, insects, plant growth or fungi.

“We have two sets of prairie experimental plots and one set of forest plots,” Mottle said. “The students in Biology 150 courses and 252 courses use them extensively and regularly for their programming for their field studies. That’s key. It’s awesome that they can, in the course of one semester, jump into an experiment that’s replicated and has had a consistent treatment applied over many years up to that point.”

Prescribed burning can be especially useful to controlling invasive species. At CERA this includes a plant called multiflora rose which was imported long ago from East Asia and has since spread faster than wildfire.

“Multiflora rose is one of our banes of existence at CERA,” Mottle said. “It is a shrub that can be over eight feet tall, and at least 12 feet across. Prickly, thorny and impenetrable, these shrubs were introduced at one point and even promoted by the USDA as living fences in Iowa, but they spread really easily and they choke off our native vegetation.”

The best solution, of course, is fire.

“If we can get fire into the base of the stems of the multiflora rose, we can actually girdle those woody stems and kill the top part of the plant.” Mottle said.

Fire, however, is not always enough, and that’s when Mottl and others at CERA turn to alternative solutions, including herbicides, cutting and, more interestingly, goats. Because the goats, unlike other livestock, enjoy eating the thorny plant, CERA managers have utilized the hardy-mouthed animals for the last couple of years as automated rose trimmers.

Fire is not a tool confined to CERA, but is commonly used to maintain land in state parks and preserves as well.

“You may see smoke west of town—big gray billowing clouds. It’s probably from Rock Creek State Park, and they’re burning their remnant prairies there. That’s a really good thing,” Mottl said.

For those who want to experience CERA and the effects of fire without taking part, there are regular field trips including prairie-savanna walks in the fall and forest-wildflower walks in the spring. There are also volunteer restoration events in the winter and spring.

To learn more about the use of fire at CERA or to receive email notices of scheduled burns, contact Larissa Mottl at [mottll].

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