Burning the Prairie at Spring Valley in Schaumburg: Melanie Blume Reports on Her SUST Internship Experience this Semester

Blume, MelanieThis is the 4th guest post by RU senior Melanie Blume, a SUST major who is interning with conservation and education staff at the Spring Valley Nature Center and the Volkening Heritage Farm near Roosevelt’s campus in Schaumburg IL. These excellent facilities are part of the 135-acre Spring Valley Conservation Area, the largest and most ecologically significant green space with the Village of Schaumburg limits, and are managed by the Schaumburg Park District. 

During the Spring 2015 semester, Melanie reflects on her work at Spring Valley on prairie conservation, seed propagation, invasive species identification and removal at the Nature Center; as well as on garden preparation, planting of their extensive vegetable garden, and contributing to Farm to Table programs with a focus on local food production at the Volkening Farm.

Fire is always fascinating. Most of the time its destructive power is heartbreaking, but in this prairie setting at Spring Valley, fire is life-renewing.

Fire allows the native grasses to flourish as the other nonnative plants, with their shallow roots, burn to ashes and become fertilizer for the native plants. Native prairie grasses have roots that go down 5-6 feet or more, so the burn really just clears out the dead to make room for new growth.

Burn crew 1On a recent day that we planned a prescribed burn, our first step was to gear up. We all put on these yellow suits that were fire retardant with matching yellow gloves. Also needed was a cotton face covering to reduce smoke inhalation and, to top it off, a helmet with a clear face shield. This resulted in feeling very hot, so its important not to wear thick clothing underneath the suit.

Then we prepared our equipment, which was a huge water tank that needed to be put on top of one of the gators (ATV) as well as fire racks (to spread the fire) and smotherers, which are poles with flat flaps at the end used to put out small fires by smothering them. About half of the crew wore water backpacks used to maintain the fire line. The experienced members of the burn team handled the two drip torches that were used to start and spread the fire in controlled lines.

The burn team was made up of a handful of conservation employees and the rest were volunteers. Almost anyone is welcome to join and they offer Saturday classes to become certified in prescribed burns. It’s that easy to be a part of something that cool! Visit the Spring Valley volunteer website to find out about this training and other volunteer opportunities. Since this was my first burn, I was assigned to smothering while monitoring my perimeter of the burn area.

Prescribed burn at SVNC, Schaumburg IL, Apr 2015 (photo: M. Blume)

Prescribed burn at SVNC, Schaumburg IL, Apr 2015 (photo: M. Blume)

The designated leader is referred to as the Burn Boss. Following his lead we walked the perimeter of the burn area before we began and saw at least two garter snakes that we relocated across the burn break. A burn break is a thick strip that’s been mowed so the fire won’t spread beyond the prescribed area. Fire by its nature needs three things: oxygen, fuel, and a spark. By clearing the grasses in that strip, we were removing the fuel part of the equation and thus keeping it contained.

Then we used the water tank on the gator to make a damp boundary to separate the fire from going toward the buildings that were a few football fields away. I was amazed at how many precautions we took — it truly is a controlled fire in every aspect.

On the advance planning side of things, a series of permits and “day of” notifications are required by the local township. This prevents the fire department and police departments from being overwhelmed by concerned calls about the huge smoke cloud billowing from Spring Valley. We also put signs up asking the public to stay out of the area and checked to make sure no-one was walking on the paths before we started. The conditions have to be just right for a prescribed burn, from the wind speed and direction to the wetness of the ground.

Prescribed burn at SVNC, Schaumburg IL, Apr 2015 (photo: M. Blume)

Prescribed burn at SVNC, Schaumburg IL, Apr 2015 (photo: M. Blume)

We picked a great day. It was a sunny day with a high of 62 and medium wind speeds (~8mph); and because we knew the wind direction we could compensate by making larger burn breaks in areas that could allow the fire spread farther from the wind. The ground was a bit damp but the vegetation atop was nice and dry from the morning sun.

To begin, the burn boss and another experienced crewmember started two lines of flank fires. Once they grasses caught fire they burned very quickly; it was obvious that without any more fuel to burn most of the fires go out by themselves. Because the grasses were already at my eye level, the fires towered about 12 feet in the air. Unfortunately I could only take pictures when I wasn’t actively guarding my fire line so the fire pictures are from quite a distance. The more moisture in the ground the more smoke is produced. There were certainly areas that produced much more smoke than others. While the mask helped, the smoke was still getting to me. I was grateful these fires burn quickly with how much smoke they produced.

Another thing we did to prep the area was weed-whacking around the trees in the prescribed area. This keeps the fire from burning so close to them, despite most of the oaks there having thick bark that’s evolved around these types of periodic burns. But it was cool to watch how the fire didn’t actually reach the trees because of this prep work. This is where the birds found shelter after circling around anxiously as the fire was roaring. Most of the prairie wildlife escapes the prescribed area once the burning starts.

RU's Melanie Blume with her protective gear on at Spring Valley Nature Center, Apr 2015

RU’s Melanie Blume with her protective gear on at Spring Valley Nature Center, Apr 2015

The whole fire ordeal lasted about 45 minutes. Afterwards we checked the area thoroughly for any fires still smoldering, specifically large pieces of wood from fallen dead branches that could burn for hours if left alone. For these we used the water backpacks and heard the sssttss of the fire being extinguished. Walking on a field of ashes produces little ash clouds with each footstep, and I saw later how that ash reached beyond my many clothing layers to leave my feet and legs covered with a layer of dirt and ash.

I’ve always wanted to see a prescribed burn in action, and now I can say I’ve been a part of a burn crew. Hopefully they’ll call me back when the conditions are right again!

Melanie Blume, submitted 14 April 2015

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