Just what the doctor prescribed: a good fire

Photo by Scot Stewart

Photo by Scot Stewart

by Scot Stewart

“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake.” —Frederick Douglass

Fire has always been a natural element of fascination and fear. Often wild and uncontrollable, it has been treated with respect during times of drought and high winds.

But Native Americans also realized it was a valuable tool. It could be used to change the vegetation of a biological community, and it can even create new communities of plants capable of attracting and feeding animals like deer, grouse and turkeys—important sources of food. Frequent fires burned quickly through the grasses and litter, returning a reinvigorating layer of nutritive ash to the soil, spurring the new growth of plants to feed and retain wildlife and desired plants in the area.

As Europeans settled across the continent, constructed permanent buildings and settlements and brought with them domesticated animals like cows, pigs and sheep, the concept of fire became more of a concern and less of a tool. Smokey the Bear reminded all, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Forests grew, thickened and filled with understories cluttered with brush, fall leaves, branches and entire dead trees. When fires—often started by lightning—did occur, they were fed with these tremendous stores of fuel in the understory, burning so hot they incinerated the topsoil and killed all the trees in their paths. Literally, nothing was left, including buildings, belongings and occasionally lives.

Today, a new chapter in fire science is being practiced. Nature lovers are still taught, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” but land managers often turn to fire to maintain desired conditions for particular plant communities to develop and to encourage specific species to thrive in habitats they demand. Fire is not only needed, but desired to create these results, and it is often the easiest way to achieve them. These prescribed burns, as they are called, are designed to remove the build-up of wood and other fuels accumulating on the forest floor, release nutrients into the soil and open areas to more sunlight to encourage specific species caught under existing canopies. Forests become more accessible to both wildlife and outdoor users.

Photo by Scot Stewart

Photo by Scot Stewart

While some private and corporate landowners with large areas of acreage occasionally turn to prescribed burns to manage lands, most burns are conducted on state and federal lands to manage them for specific wildlife species or reduce the occurrences of larger, uncontrollable fires caused by lightning and other events.

Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Schoolcraft County is one of those areas where wildlife managers have been using fire as a tool to manage some areas for specific species of wildlife like deer, grouse, yellow rails and other species on a regular basis. In an attempt to mimic natural conditions when possible, the refuge tries to conduct its fires in the latter part of July—historically the time when most naturally occurring fires have been recorded due to lightning. Managers choose times when the moisture level is high. Naturally occurring fires during short-term dry periods can result in big fires. Some years, the planned fires just aren’t held because of dry conditions. Winds are another factor considered because of their abilities to change the speed of a fire.

“When you do a burn, something is going to lose, something is going to win,” said Gary Lindsay, fire management officer at Seney National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by Scot Stewart

Photo by Scot Stewart

Wildlife managers recognize that when a fire is carried out, some animals and plants benefit—winners—and some will lose a foothold, their young or even their own lives. At Seney NWR, a number of more unusual species are also targeted to provide habitat improvements. Besides ruffed grouse, rarer sharp-tailed grouse habitat is enhanced by fire.

Sharp-tails are grasslands birds that probably moved northward as lands were cleared, but may have found their way into some Upper Peninsula areas, like the Shakey Lakes area west of Stephenson, where Native Americans historically burned large areas to create prairie conditions for good hunting. LeConte’s sparrow and yellow rail are two other species that also like more open areas, although the sparrows like brushy wetlands where sedge wrens also nest and the yellow rails prefer wet sedge meadows. White-tailed deer and ruffed grouse like the openings created by fires and the emergent growth of aspen produces some of the important food they need.

In 2014, the Seney refuge conducted three fires amounting to 432 acres covered, with individual burns of 170, 108 and 154 acres respectively, according to Lindsay. While it was considered a general burn, the northern portion of the 154 acre burn on the Driggs Road burned “hotter,” resulting in a greater impact to some of the larger pines. Mature red pine trees have a fire-resistant bark and, in cooler fires, often survive a blaze. Added fuel on the forest floor from accumulations of branches, leaves and needles and even dead, fallen trees and heavy growth of low branches of conifers can increase the temperature of a fire creating a greater impact on mature trees. The southern half did not experience the same hotter temperatures and more of the larger red pines survived.

This fire has attracted the attention of birders this year because of the habitat it creates for several species of woodpeckers. While some more common species like hairy and some downy woodpeckers are drawn to the insects in these burns, the black-backed woodpecker, a much rarer, boreal species, can flock to these burns. Recent natural fires like the Bump Burn in Baraga County and the Duck Lake fire in Luce County have also had similar results attracting black-backs.

Beetles are also attracted to burns. They bring the woodpeckers. Species from the beetle genus Melanophila have special infrared sensors on their abdomens to help them locate hot temperatures in woods, perhaps up to eighty kilometers away. They also have smoke detector organs on their antennae that might be sensitive enough to identify one smoldering tree from a kilometer away.

The two systems work together to help the beetles find trees damaged or killed by fires where they can lay their eggs. Interestingly, their smoke-detecting mechanism is being studied to consider new designs for more sensitive smoke detectors for human use. Their eggs are laid in the bark of trees and hatch the following spring.

Healthy trees produce saps, resins and other chemicals to discourage insects from eating them. When the plants become stressed or injured, their ability to produce these inhibitors may be compromised. Insects capable of sensing threatening conditions rush to these trees to lay their eggs. For many of these beetles, food for the developing larvae is the inner bark of the trees. Sometimes trees are still smoking when the beetles are laying their eggs. The following spring and summer, the growing insects become a major attraction for the black-backed woodpeckers. An even rarer species, the American three-toed woodpecker is also occasionally drawn to these areas, providing even more excitement.

At the Bump burn, more than fifty pairs of black-backs were found there the year after the burn, with a substantial number of hairy woodpeckers, too. At the Driggs Road burn, a smaller area, at least three pairs of black-backs appear to be using the burn this summer. Lindsay says the refuge has plans to burn as many at 1,500 to 2,000 acres this summer, including some areas close to the Driggs burn from last year. If conditions allow and these areas are burned, at least one species will be a big winner—the black-backs—and birders should be happy next year, too.

Photo by Scot Stewart

Photo by Scot Stewart

An additional plus for the woodpeckers, the beetle eggs are staggered, so usually around a third of the eggs hatch the year after the fires, with similar amounts hatching each of the following two years. This helps the beetle population remain relatively steady, even if several years pass without a new fire.

In a refuge like Seney with a total of 95,238 acres, several hundred acres, even a thousand given to fires in a year seems miniscule. For species like sharp-tailed grouse and black-backed woodpeckers, and in other areas, Kirtland’s warblers, fires are huge and important to their ongoing success.

Visitors to areas burned by fires often find a sea of new green growth soon after the last embers are extinguished. Forest fires don’t destroy portions of a forest, they only alter it, often making it healthier. Just what the doctor ordered.

—Scot Stewart

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