Whidbey Camano Land TrustUsing fire to restore native prairie habitat Whidbey Camano Land TrustUsing fire to restore native prairie habitat

Using fire to restore native prairie habitat

Before Bob Wilken lowered his drip torch to ignite some dry grass, the husky, bearded man did something he’s found essential when conducting controlled prairie burns.

He blew bubbles.

“Bubbles tell us what the wind’s doing before we put any smoke on the ground,” said Wilken, a burn boss for the Center for Natural Lands Management. “Hot air rises. Cold air sinks. As the bubbles lift, they tell us the smoke’s going to lift. If it gets cool, it drops. So it gives us a rough idea where the smoke’s going and what our fire behavior is going to do.”

Wilken was part of a large, specialized crew based in South Puget Sound asked by the Land Trust to conduct a controlled burn at the Admiralty Inlet Natural Area Preserve near Coupeville in late August.

The specialized crew conducts 90 to 100 such burns each summer, Wilken said.

The method is considered an important tool in helping restore rare native prairie habitat. The Admiralty Inlet Natural Area Preserve holds a prairie remnant that is home to the golden paintbrush, a state endangered and federally threatened plant species. Only 12 natural sites with golden paintbrush remain in the world.

Centuries before European settlement, Native Americans used fire on prairies to keep out encroaching shrubs and trees so plants that provided food or medicine could thrive. Since the mid-1800s, much of that land has converted to other uses. Nowadays, controlled burning is used to help maintain open grassland habitat and improve conditions for germination of native prairie species.

Nearly three acres were burned at the Admiralty Inlet Preserve. It was the first time the technique was used there since 2011.

“This burned better than any time I’ve ever seen it before,” said Mason McKinley, restoration and fire program manager for the Center for Natural Lands Management. “Often up here you end up with a lot of moisture from the Sound and things don’t dry out that well. With the dry weather that we’ve had, it allowed the fuels to dry, which allows for a better fire, which allows for better seed establishment. That was as good as we could hope and still be a safe burn.”

The crew that came to Whidbey Island in September was made up of more than 20 members from the Center for Natural Lands Management, the State Department of Natural Resources, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the Land Trust.

“We get a really good feel for fires,” said Wilken, who’s been in the controlled burn business 42 years. “We get that from frequency of operations. That’s one of the reasons we feel a lot more comfortable with hanging onto a rocket in a lot of ways.”

Hanging onto a rocket?

“Well, managing fire,” he said. “We’re trying to manage fire behavior instead of fire managing us. So it’s a lot of nuances as far as the tactics.”