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Prescribed fires begin at Arboretum, Lakeshore Nature Preserve

March 27, 2019 By Susan Day

UW Arboretum land care staff member Austin Pethan uses a drip torch during a prescribed fire at the Arboretum in spring 2016. Prescribed burns are scheduled for this week as well. Photo: Jeff Miller

The spring prescribed fire season is getting underway at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum and Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Both natural areas manage many acres of remnant and restored prairies, oak savannas, and oak woodlands — native Wisconsin ecosystems that need fire to stay healthy.

Prescribed fire restores a natural process, stimulates native vegetation growth and seed production, improves wildlife habitat, and provides valuable training and research opportunities.

Fires began Tuesday, March 26, at the Arboretum. Prescribed fires are usually set March through May and sometimes in late fall. They are conducted within a strict set of parameters that include temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity, and fuel conditions, among many others.

Before and during each burn, the fire manager checks that all current and expected parameters are within prescribed ranges to conduct a safe fire, have good smoke lift, and meet the land care goals. Prescribed fire crew members have taken wildland fire training and use full protective clothing and equipment.

Ashes from burnt prairie grasses are pictured during a 2016 prescribed burn. Photo: Jeff Miller

Native prairies, oak savannas, and oak woodlands evolved to rely on fire for regeneration. Prescribed fires mimic natural ones but are set and managed under controlled conditions. Prescribed fires can help combat invasive plant species while safely removing old and dry plant material to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires.

The ecological benefits are many, and the safety of crew and visitors is always a top priority. Prescribed fires can burn very hot and fast. If you happen to be visiting the Arboretum or the Preserve during a fire, please follow these safety precautions:

  • Always stay off trails and firebreaks that are closed for a prescribed fire, and do not go off trail
  • Keep a safe distance from smoke, flames, and heat
  • Do not interfere with or obstruct movement of crew, equipment, and vehicles
  • Do not distract a prescribed fire crew

Mopping up after flames are out is also a critical time for safety and fire management, so please continue to observe these precautions around any site with an active fire crew.

Neither the Arboretum nor the Preserve is located within a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fire protection area. Both get permission from the City of Madison or the City of Fitchburg (depending on prescribed fire location) and notify local officials before every fire is ignited.

Smoke may be the most visible sign for visitors, neighbors, and travelers on nearby roads. Visitors to the Arboretum and the Preserve might see posted signs alerting the public to burn activity and closed trails, or swaths of blackened areas after a burn.

See the Arboretum’s Prescribed Fire Updates page for seasonal information. Or call the Visitor Center at (608) 263-7888, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays or 12:30 to 4 p.m. weekends.

For information about prescribed fire in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, call the Program Manager at (608) 265-9275, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.