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‘Fire science’ - prescribed burns are being used in Ohio to restore habitat

A burn being completed by a state-certified "burn boss."
Courtesy of Ohio Prescribed Fire Council
A burn being completed by a state-certified "burn boss."

The local group Ohio Prescribed Fire Council held their annual meeting earlier this month to discuss best practices, new approaches and current work around this habitat management tool.

Media coverage of forest fires tends to highlight the ones that grow out of control. But fires can be good for the environment.

Prescribed burns are fires that are purposefully lit to improve ecosystem health.

This theme was the center of discussion at the Ohio Prescribed Fire Council’s 4th annual meeting held this Tuesday.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley
The six-hour long conference featured various fire specialists from across the region.

More than 100 people ranging from park district staff to Ohio Division of Forestry officials were in attendance at the Ohio Fire Academy in Reynoldsburg.

The Ohio Prescribed Fire Council is a statewide organization whose mission is to support the use of prescribed burns in fire-adapted habitats across the state.

Think prairies, grasslands and hardwood forests.

Why it’s done

Over 200 burns take place annually across the state.

“These are fires that we plan ahead of time, that we get permits for," John Watts, former fire marshal and chair of the council explained. "You have to be a certified burn manager in the state because the key to this is doing it safely. That's the number one factor in all of this."

Watts said burns can be used to improve ecosystems by promoting seed germination and eliminating invasive plant species.

The meeting hosted speakers that were professors, landscape architects and conservation managers from across the state and region.

“I'm a firm believer that rare species that live in fire dependent systems are rare because we've removed fire the way that they evolved. So if you exclude fire, you start losing the habitat and then you lose this individual,” said Jack McGowan-Stinski, who works with the Lakes States Fire Science Consortium.

McGowan-Stinski urged guests at the conference to think beyond their fascination with the flames.

There are multiple ways of measuring the “fire effects” that emerge post-burns, such as butterfly surveys and vegetation sampling, said McGowan-Stinski.

“But this is the Western science we're talking about, because now that I'm working more with indigenous tribes, listening to the plants and animals, that was not an ‘a-ha’ moment for any of these folks.

Prescribed burns have been a habitat management tool for centuries, with various tribal communities historically using it as a means for promoting biodiversity.

Expanding interest

Nate Simons with Blue Heron Ministries based out of Indiana calls their work “restorations,” though he said this is partially a misnomer.

“It’s like trying to put a puzzle together and some of the pieces are missing. So we're not restoring completely. We are setting [the ecosystem] on a new trajectory in which we can live, said Simons.

A controlled burn in Ohio.
Courtesy of Ohio Prescribed Fire Council
A controlled burn in Ohio.

Watts also teaches for the prescribed fire management course for the state of Ohio, which takes place biannually.

For the most recent class, the Division of Forestry said they received the most applications this year than they had for any other class, having to turn away nearly half of their applicant pool due to capacity.

While this meeting discussed best practices, new approaches and current work being done locally around prescribed fires with burn managers, Watts said that the hope is to share this practice with more Ohioans.

“We want to try to educate people that may not know a thing about fire. We want to educate them as to why it's important. And get other people that are now interested in learning about fire to maybe even participate in burns.”

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.