NORTHERN MICHIGAN – In Michigan, and across the Lake States, people start most wildland fires. Debris burning is the single major reason, from fire that escaped from a burn barrel, a brush pile, or some other task. The burner can be held financially liable for expensive suppression costs.
Most of the burning comes and goes without incident, thousands of them each spring. However, several hundred times each year, something goes awry. A burner is inattentive at the wrong time, or the conditions were simply too volatile.
The DNR requires burn permits when more dangerous conditions develop. Their website sports a nice map showing where permits are needed, not needed, or where burning is currently not allowed. Enter “Michigan burn permits” into a browser. As spring advances, the map changes color as conditions develop.
While the DNR sets their restrictions for the lowest bar, maximizing caution, it pays to see what they have to illustrate. However, it’s under these riskier conditions when successful prescribed fires can be deployed. Herein lies a bit of a dilemma.
Agricultural burns are exempt from the permit system. However, the state has a definition for what constitutes such a burn. It must be part of a cropping system or a plan for disease or pest control. The local DNR fire control field office can help clarify that.
Prescribed burning is a far more interesting affair. Fire is a marvelous vegetation management tool, although it is understandably tricky, and sometimes controversial.
The functions of prescribed burning vary across the country. Here in the Lake States, fire is used to restore and maintain prairies, oak savannahs, and other vegetation that historically burned on a regular basis. Sometimes, fire will enhance species and community diversity.
Brush can be removed to encourage natural regeneration of certain tree species in certain forest types, such as oaks and red pine. A more open understory can help control certain forest insects and pathogens. The effect on controlling exotic species is mixed, with a lot of “depends” factors.
After fires, the soil carbon content increases, as well as rates of groundwater recharge.
The more open conditions are favorable to a suite of wildlife species, such as upland game, waterfowl, and grassland birds. Fires can shift plant composition from grasses to forbs, favoring pollinators and seed-eaters.
While the benefits of prescribed fire are numerous, the risk of outbreak lurks behind every well-made burn plan. Smoke management must be considered in terms of visibility and human health. “Urban splatter” has confounded the use of prescribed fire in many areas of Michigan.
Public agencies have the resources to monitor local weather, build fire lines, train personnel, and have suppression equipment in reserve. Land conservancies are getting into this game, too. Sometimes, they may work with private landowners. I remember helping the Nature Conservancy burn prairie holdings in southern Wisconsin in the 1980s. Oh my, did they receive blowback from that, mostly from their own ranks!
Burning on your own land is possible, but great care must be taken to avoid calamity. Adhering to the DNR permit system can be an encumbrance, but also a good idea. Reasonable physical fitness is another underlying requirement. Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack helping to fight a fire started by a neighbor.
Knowledge of fire behavior comes with experience. The basics can be learned from books. More importantly, specific behavior on your own land, vegetation types and conditions, microtopography, and neighbor acceptance can only be learned in practice.
If prescribed burning is something that might benefit vegetation on your own land, consider finding local expertise to evaluate the situation, then if warranted, to build and execute a plan.
Start small and learn. It’s much wiser at the end of the day to think, “I could have done more” than saying “I should not have tried that.” You won’t win friends by making mistakes, and a mistake could put a serious dent in your pocketbook.