Inside JCPRD: Fire is an important tool for maintaining JCPRD’s natural areas

A drone’s-eye view of a recent controlled burn in Shawnee Mission Park.

By David Markham

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is an old saying you’ve undoubtedly heard.

But in JCPRD parks between Nov. 1 and April 1, it would be almost as true to say that “where there’s smoke, there’s a very good chance there’s a natural resource management effort going on.”

Prescribed fires, also called controlled burns, are a key ingredient in maintaining JCPRD’s plant communities including prairies, old deciduous forests, and non-native grasslands.

Under a sunny sky and a plume of smoke, a controlled burn progresses in Big Bull Creek Park.

“Good fire is key to removing woody growth in prairies and non-native vegetation in woodlands,” said JCPRD Field Biologist Matt Garrett. “Nutrients in leaf litter are instantly turned into a usable form for plants post fire. The heat from sunshine on the blackened soil warms the soil allowing for plants to sprout and grow. Prescribed fire is one of the most economical natural resource tools at our disposal. It can cost two to three thousand dollars an acre to clear invasive plants from a site without fire when you’re mechanically removing things, and if you burn a prairie before the invasive plants get out of control, it costs dollars an acre.”

JCPRD currently rotates prescribed fire on 1,000-plus acres of original unplowed prairie and prairie restorations. The district focuses its burning efforts during the dormant season between November and April.

“Park managers rotate fire units yearly,” Garrett said. ‘’The number of prescribed fires per year varies greatly by priorities and weather. We’d anticipate burning 800 acres of prairies and woodlands with ideal conditions this (2020-2021) fire season.”

Prescribed fires require planning and paperwork, and sometimes get cancelled at the last minute by changing wind and weather conditions.  In Johnson County, a burn requires permits from both the city where the park is located and the county environmental department.

“Burn plans, operation maps, and smoke maps are studied,” Garrett said. “Weather reports are analyzed. Staff start at an anchor point. They initiate a test fire to test predicted conditions. A back fire is then created as a black line of burned vegetation. Staff then begin work the flanks and eventually ignite a small head fire that runs with the wind and consumes the burn unit.”

Two JCPRD park workers set a fire line during a recent controlled burn in Big Bull Creek Park.

In all, about 50 JCPRD park maintenance employees who have a role in maintaining natural areas have completed training through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Fire Academy. Around seven to ten staff park staff work an average prescribed fire.

“Prescribed fire is inherently dangerous work that’s critical to providing high quality parks to the citizens of Johnson County,” Garrett said. “JCPRD’s original remnant prairies are home to hundreds of species of rare plants and animals dependent on a reoccurring fire cycle. Staff take pride in managing prescribed fires.”

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