Updated: Apr 28
As March draws near and the seasons (hopefully) change, spring burn season lurks right around the corner. This is the time of year for prescribed burning which is crucial for the conservation of fire-dependent ecosystems and is a chance to build on all the previous work that has been done. At Friends of the Blufflands, we have made significant progress restoring a globally rare habitat. That’s correct, right in La Crosse’s backyard we have some of the most endangered habitat in Wisconsin! Hixon Forest and the surrounding bluffs are home to several bluff prairies and it is our duty to restore and preserve them. This effort is being accomplished through hundreds of volunteer and contractor hours throughout the year, and, of course, through prescribed burning!
Prescribed burning is done for many reasons, but in a nutshell, it helps restore balance in the natural world and gives our native species a fighting chance to reclaim habitat that was once theirs. With the most recent prescribed fire in Hixon Forest officially concluded, we are rewarded with a unique opportunity to reflect on the importance of the impact we are having on the landscape. Lookout Prairie in Hixon Forest was burned on Sunday, February 20th and already the effects are being noticed! One of the benefits to burning is turning the ground surface black in color. This is important because one of the things that our native species need is warm ground temperatures to help seeds germinate and when we turn the surface black, it greatly changes the albedo of the ground. We go from a surface that is highly reflective of solar energy to a surface that reflects very little and that warms the soil immensely.
A photo of Lookout Prairie after the burn
I had the pleasure of witnessing how powerful this heating can be and it was truly captivating. Two days following the burn we received a measurable snowfall of a couple inches which, in the morning, had covered the previously burned prairie. By early afternoon that same day almost no snow remained on the black soil and the ground was giving the appearance that it was still smoking from the recent burn! I thought, “How can this be?” Then I realized that the ground was so warm from the afternoon sun that it was, in fact, steaming as it melted the snow and moisture at such a fast rate! This was a remarkable phenomenon to be watching as almost the entire blackened prairie was steaming. Oh, and I should mention the current temperature as I watched this was 14 degrees. Talk about some real solar power!
This photo does not convey the true grandeur of the "Smoking Prairie"!
I left the prairie that day with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment because I knew that we had made a positive change for that habitat. In the springtime, there will be a lush bloom thanks to the many benefits of this burn, including, but not limited to, blackening the surface. A big thanks goes out to Friends of the Blufflands, The Prairie Enthusiasts, the City of La Crosse, and all the volunteers who helped make this burn happen. Its effect will only be more noticeable as the seasons change! Go check it out for yourself!
-Jared Vander Loop- Volunteer and Contractor, Ridge and Coulee, LLC