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October begins prescribed burn season - an important step in creating diverse biodiversity in Kansas

By Sarah Benal

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, prescribed burning mimics the historical occurrence of fire that shaped our plant communities. Photo by Magali Rojas.

Prescribed burns are an important part of maintaining a biodiverse ecosystem and are not only helpful for achieving a landscape that reflects a pre-settlement era but are cost-effective ways to keep invasive species, such as bush honeysuckle, from invading the area. Fire is often associated with destruction, but “prescribed burns” are the opposite of destructive. They promote new growth and help clear out debris. “For the general public, Smokey the Bear did too good of a job,” said Larry Rizzo, a biologist at Habitat Architects. We see on the news these huge western fires that have very little in common with the types of fires we do here. There’s too much of a mindset that fires are destructive and we have to stop them. Fire is a really important part of ecosystems.”

Fires in the middle of an urban area may seem alarming, especially to those living in neighborhoods or nearby city facilities. But prescribed burns require a lot of careful planning. “Prescribed burns” literally have a prescription: a set of parameters put down to burn under. People leading the burns must start with notifying local authorities and fire departments, and are constantly monitoring conditions such as cloud cover and humidity. They also prioritize other requirements such as the fire lines they have installed and knowing what the ignition plan is for the burn. The toughest factor is the wind speed, which is the most difficult to pin down as far as long-range forecast. Wind can flip on you, and because of that prescribed burns can be postponed last minute to keep the area safe and make sure the smoke will lift.

With training from experts like The Missouri Department of Conservation, landowners can lead their own prescribed burns to keep their space healthy. Prescribed burns in urban areas are facilitated by trained professionals such as Habitat Architects, Native Lands LLC, The Missouri Department of Conservation, and KC WildLands. Rizzo explains they burn in natural communities, which in pre-settlement times, were most of our landscape: glades, woodlands, prairies, savannahs, and even some wetlands that would burn when they were dry.

Rizzo recalls hearing about a fire in the Southwest, described as “destructive” by the news. “It was a wildfire, out of control, and the commentators were calling it ‘very destructive to the grassland.’ It wasn’t hurting the grassland, grass is meant to burn.”

Land owners, land managers, and contractors who are interested in conducting prescribed burns can contact The Missouri Department of Conservation to earn their prescribed burn certification. Rizzo encourages those who are trained to attend burnings with other organizations such as KC WildLands and The Missouri Prairie Foundation. Volunteers can learn about the diverse biodiversity in Kansas City during the burn training.

On the surface, fire can seem intimidating. But prescribed burns are an important, cost-effective, and healthy way to restore landscapes and create healthy ecosystems for wildlife and natural resources. Kansas City is filled with a variety of natural landscapes such as glades, prairies, and grasslands that future generations can enjoy if the proper maintenance strategies are taken and more communities learn about the benefits of their application.

“Fires are a natural part of our local ecosystems. And when we can put that back on the landscape, it has benefits to both plants and animals,” said Rizzo.

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