Fort McCoy’s prescribed burn team got its earliest start to hold a prescribed burn in recent memory as they held the installation’s first prescribed burn of the year Feb. 13 along several miles of railroad grade on South Post.
The post prescribed burn team includes personnel with the Fort McCoy Directorate of Emergency Services Fire Department; Directorate of Public Works (DPW) Environmental Division Natural Resources Branch; Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security; and the Colorado State University Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands who work in partnership with the post’s DPW team.
Charles Mentzel, installation forester for the Directorate of Public Works (DPW) Environmental Division Natural Resources Branch, said completing and planning prescribed burns must be a team approach.
“Prescribed burns, generally, are done in the spring and fall seasons because weather conditions are most favorable at those times,” Mentzel said.
For the Feb. 13 prescribed burn, weather was sunny with a slight breeze and near 40 degrees. Mentzel said the prescribed burn effort was a success that saves time and effort later on.
“We learned many years ago to burn the south slopes (along the tracks) as soon as they are cleared of snow,” Mentzel said. “When everything is surrounded by snow, we cut our man-hours well over half. So, we keep an eye on conditions and burn it when it is ready.
“All areas that we burned in this prescribed burn were considered a success,” Mentzel said. “The goal is always to reduce fuels next to the tracks. Prior to us burning along the railroad tracks, trains would start fires so this improves safety as well.
Also holding a prescribed burn in mid-February is rare, according to Mentzel.
“This was the earliest we have started prescribe burns,” Mentzel said. “Usually it is around the first part of March we get going.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources defines prescribed burns to “improve wildlife habitat, control invasive plant species, restore and maintain native plant communities and reduce wildfire potential.”
Prescribed burns also reduce wildfire potential, Mentzel said. “Prescribed burns benefit the environment many ways and are one of the tools we can use on a large scale to improve our wildlife habitat,” he said.
Mentzel said prescribed burns also help set back invasive species, and they burn up their seed banks. Burns also give native species an opportunity to compete against some of the non-native species, as many native species depend on fire to help stimulate them and set back non-native species.
“The burns also set back small trees and shrubs and make them grow again from the stump,” Mentzel said. “This allows for more food for deer and other animals and removes unwanted (tree) species from growing underneath an oak forest.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also explains benefits of prescribed burns. The department’s web page at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov states “prescribed burns serve many purposes.” They include controlling undesirable vegetation; preparing sites for harvesting, planting or seeding; controlling plant disease; reducing wildfire hazards; improving wildlife habitat; improving plant production quantity and quality; and removing debris. The burns also enhance seed production, facilitating the distribution of grazing and browsing animals, restoring and maintaining ecological sites, and managing native plant diversity and composition.
“Prescribed burning is fire applied to a predetermined area within a prescribed set of conditions, dates, and with appropriate safety precautions to achieve specific purposes,” the USDA site states. “Prescribed burning can be applied to forest land, grass-land, pastureland, wildlife land, hay land and other land uses as appropriate.”
More prescribed burns will likely take place across Fort McCoy during spring 2023 as conditions permit.
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