As many park visitors know, the weather last Friday, February 24, was more pleasant than anyone could ask for on a February day in Louisville, Kentucky. Blue skies, sunny, nearly 80 degrees and a stiff breeze—it was beautiful. That afternoon I was making my way from Beckley Creek Park to our Southern Operations Center in Turkey Run Park. I was taking advantage of the incredible weather by cruising our scenic parkways with my truck windows down.
One of my favorite sections of our parkways is the stretch that meanders through Turkey Run Park. Along this drive you climb hills, dip into valleys, pass waterfalls and meadows, all while surrounded by Turkey Run Forest. On this particular Friday, the drive was exceptionally enjoyable. The birds were chirping and the witch hazel and maple trees were blooming. But as I passed Ben Stout House and began to climb the hill toward Brown-Forman Silo Center, things took an odd turn for the worse.
I first smelled it, and then quickly noticed the white smoke billowing over the hill toward me. Less than a half hour later Turkey Run Park had been evacuated, many acres just outside the park were burning, helicopters were in the air and firetrucks were lined along Turkey Run Parkway.
From many perspectives, this sounds like a bad situation and perhaps one with little to no benefits. However, from the perspective of a steward and manager of the natural areas at The Parklands, fire is seen as a tool that can be used to greatly benefit the flora and fauna of the park system. Fire is a natural process, and many plants and animals rely on it to flourish. In fact, the park has carried out prescribed, controlled fires to encourage native warm season grass growth, promote wildlife habitat and to control invasive species. Although the fire on Friday was not prescribed, the land that was burned will still reap the benefits of fire.
Before we dive deeper into the benefits of wildland fires, we must emphasize that this particular instance was an “(un)prescribed fire”. We are thankful for the emergency response crews who worked quickly and efficiently to put out the blaze, ensuring that no person was hurt and no structures were damaged. Thanks to them, we can appreciate how this blaze will affect the plant growth and how it will change the wildlife habitat of the area.
An important factor in prescribed burning is timing. Putting fire on land during different times of the growing season will produce different results. Fires burned during the growing season will often promote forbs, while fires burned in early spring will promote grasses. The fire that burned on Friday was a late winter/early spring fire. This fire will invigorate native warm season grasses and there will most likely be a noticeable increase in grass density. Fires that burn during this time of year also reduce woody plants like trees and shrubs. As I mentioned earlier, fire is a natural process—the promotion of grasses and reduction of woody plants results in meadows and plains that occur naturally throughout the United States.
Not only do early spring fires invigorate grasses, they ‘clean up’ plant and animal debris. Fires aid in reinvigorating soils by decomposing dead plant and animal material and returning the nutrients to the soil. They also burn debris that prevent seed from reaching the ground. As warm season grasses go dormant for the winter, they turn brown and fall over; making a thick layer of dead grass known as thatch. Thatch is fuel for a fire and it burns up, which allows seed to reach the ground again.
Thatch can be a problem for reseeding, but it has a benefit too. It’s often home to many animals like rabbits, deer, mice, turkey and quail. When the thatch becomes too thick, some smaller animals, particularly quail, have difficulty moving through the grass. Fires burn the thatch, and within a growing season, the wildlife habitat is renewed and rejuvenated.
For decades, we were taught as children that fires on open land are a bad and dangerous thing, and when “un-prescribed” and un-controlled, they can be. Friday’s incident highlights the importance of planning to ensure safety of all involved.
But controlled, planned, prescribed fires and the science behind them is starting to change the conversation. Plants, animals and even people benefit from prescribed and controlled burns. One of the greatest benefits of fires is that they control and decrease the presence of invasive species while promoting native species without the use of pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals—a fact that any naturalist or nature enthusiast can appreciate.
While the fire that occurred on Friday was not prescribed, knowing that no one was injured, we can appreciate how fire will have a positive impact on the plants and animals in the area.
To see firsthand how fire can affect the growth of warm season grasses, visit Prairie Preserve in Pope Lick Park, where a controlled burn took place in March of 2016.
To learn more about prescribed fires, check out the links below:
Evan began his career with the Parklands in 2013 as a park attendant and part-time helper on Natural Areas projects. In 2014 he joined the Natural Areas team as a technician and in the spring of 2015 was promoted to Natural Areas Team Leader. While working he spends his time promoting healthy habitats for the plants and animals that live in the park. Patrick was born in Morehead, Kentucky near the Daniel Boone National Forest, where his appreciation for nature, conservation and stewardship was cultivated. Patrick is a graduate of the University of Louisville, where he earned a degree in anthropology. His interests include cooking, mushroom foraging, craft beer and the outdoors.
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