Humans tend to view fire with mixed feelings. We enjoy sitting around a campfire, but fire is often considered to be a destructive force. Many people would view a hillside blackened by a wildfire with sadness, without realizing that for a prairie, fire is actually life-giving. Prairie grasses and wildflowers are well adapted for surviving fires. Grasses and other prairie plants have extensive root systems that allow the plant to regrow quickly if the above-ground biomass is lost. A blackened prairie hillside will be covered with new green sprouts within a couple of weeks after a fire.
However, when a tree is burned it may lose years of growth. If it is not killed completely, it will take much longer to recover than the grasses, and by the time it does, another fire will come along to set it back again. Fire is an essential force in maintaining a prairie, keeping trees from getting the upper hand and turning the prairie into a forest. Along with large grazing animals like bison, and a somewhat arid climate, fire is the reason north central Texas was home to tallgrass prairie and not deciduous forest. Historically, wildfires started by lightning or by Native Americans swept over huge expanses of the prairie on a regular basis.
At LLELA, we intentionally burn many of our prairie areas from time to time as dictated by our management goals. These “prescribed burns” benefit our prairies in a number of ways:
- Burning recycles nutrients trapped in dead vegetation and makes them available to plants, stimulating growth.
- Regular burning improves forage quality for wildlife and increases the diversity of plants available.
- Well-timed fire is an important tool in controlling K-R Bluestem (a non-native grass species) and other exotic invasive plants in our prairies, as well as controlling woody vegetation.
- Prescribed burns can remove dangerous fuel loads, preventing wildfires.
- Burning can be used to open an area up in preparation for seed planting.