Fighting prairie brush with fire

The Nature Conservancy and its partners are gearing up for a busy fire season late this summer.

In this case, they’ll be starting fires, not responding to put them out.

The series of so-called controlled burns is directed at South Sound prairie habitat that benefits from occasional fires to reduce invasive species and eliminate brush, which, left unchecked, can fuel destructive wildfires.

It’s an attempt to restore prairie ecosystems that are home to wildflowers, birds and butterflies not found in other areas of South Puget Sound, said Mason McKinley, The Nature Conservancy’s Thurston County project manager.

“The native prairies essentially evolved with fire,” McKinley said. “Fire is essential to this diversity and to the prairies’ ecological health.”

As many as 10 controlled burns are scheduled in late August and early September, on prairielands owned by The Nature Conservancy, state departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife, Thurston County and Wolf Haven International.

Thurston County, the state agencies and local fire districts work on the fires to make sure they are contained to the targeted areas.

This marks the second year in a row that the prairie partners have set a goal of about 10 controlled burns in Thurston County. Prior to that, beginning in 2001, one or two prescribed fires were typical per year.

The fires require a certain set of weather conditions, including little or no wind. It can’t be too dry, or too wet, either.

“We’re at the mercy of the weather,” McKinley said. “If it’s hot and dry like it was two weeks ago, the burns would have to be canceled. But the recent cooler weather has been a huge boost for us.”

The fires, scheduled at such places as Thurston County’s Glacial Heritage Preserve and Fish and Wildlife’s Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, often have specific research objectives.

For instance, abandoned agricultural fields at West Rocky Prairie and Glacial Heritage will be burned to see if fire can help return the land to its pre-farming, prairie conditions, said Eric Delvin, a prairie restorationist with The Nature Conservancy.

Historically, prairie habitat extended from south of Tacoma southeast to an area beyond Oakville along the Chehalis River. By 1995, less than three percent of the native prairie habitat remained, the rest lost to development and invasive species.