KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Ongoing efforts continue this week at Western Michigan University's Asylum Lake Preserve to actively manage the nature preserve for research, education, passive recreation and ecological health.
On Friday, April 2, 14 acres of prairie as well as 4.5 acres on the southeast shores of the lake will be burned, if weather conditions allow.
Prescribed burns are fires that are intentionally set and carefully managed. They are periodically necessary to maintain and promote the health of native vegetation. This year, the Kalamazoo city fire marshal has approved a burn permit in the Asylum Lake Preserve through May 31.
Plans call for up to 14 acres of prairie to be burned along Drake Road west of the preserve's Drake Road parking lot. In addition, a 4.5-acre area on the southeast shores of Asylum Lake has also been designated for a prescribed burn.
Copies of the burn permit and a description of the rationale for the work are posted on the kiosks in both the Asylum Lake Preserve. If weather conditions are not conducive for a burn yet this spring semester, the next window of opportunity will be as early as this coming September.
Managing prescribed burns
Prescribed burns are done with the cooperation and approval of all necessary local jurisdictions, and in the case of the Asylum Lake Preserve, the cooperation of the Asylum Lake Policy and Management Council.
Tom Sauber, WMU landscape manager, says wind speed, relative humidity and many other conditions must be right for a burn to take place. Consequently, organizers wait until 24 hours before a scheduled burn to give the official go-ahead, and if it does, safety equipment is on hand for fire monitoring and control.
Burns are planned and executed to minimize the amount of smoke produced, and prior notice is given to people residing near the burn areas. Temporary "burn breaks" are created around the area to be burned to help manage the fire and delineate the burn site's exact boundaries.
Since 2000, small parcels have been intentionally burned in the 274-acre Asylum Lake Preserve, which is owned and managed by WMU and overseen by the Asylum Lake Policy and Management Council. They took place in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2018 and 2019. Other burns occurred in 2013, 2014 and 2019 in WMU's 48-acre Kleinstuck Preserve.
Natural ecological restoration
Fire used to be a regular part of prairies, oak-hickory woodlands, certain wetlands and other native ecosystems in the Midwest. Whether started by lightning or people, it stimulated various plant species to grow more vigorously and discouraged others that were not adapted to fire.
To ensure safety and follow best management practices, the Asylum Lake Policy and Management Council has hired professional fire crews to manage the upcoming burns. The contractor for the burn is PlantWise LLC, an ecological restoration company owned and operated by David Mindell of Ann Arbor. The firm states on its website that burns "have proven effective at controlling numerous invasive species while simultaneously stimulating native plants and encouraging the return of a broader diversity of animals."
Sauber says having a professional burn boss for both habitat types means that experienced, insured professionals and the special equipment needed to pull off a burn can be mobilized quickly should the weather be favorable to schedule a prescribed burn.
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