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Fire generates new life, growth

<i>Debbie Griffin photos</i> The River Falls Fire Department conducted a controlled burn on a town of River Falls property April 9.

Who knew that the very folks hired to fight fires, sometimes ignite them?

The blazes they set, called controlled or prescribed burns, help kill undesirable plants and weeds, enabling desirable, native plants to flourish again and creating better habitat for Wisconsin's wildlife.

Town of River Falls resident Jerome "Jerry" Rodewald and wife Marcella watched Friday afternoon as local firefighters burned 12 acres near their home.

Rodewald said under a contract with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he planted native grasses on his land in 1996.

He knew the time would come when the land would need to be burned so that little and big bluestem, indiangrass, black-eyed susans, cone flowers and other wildflowers could again flourish.

"What I have up there now is weeds," Rodewald said before the burn.

Rodewald said he followed the very specific recommendations of the NRCS, which gives well-defined steps and actions for conducting the burn.

He made arrangements with the local Fire Department last year to do the burn, but a burn ban and other unfavorable conditions prevented it from happening.

The landowner says each type of weed has its season for burning, according to the application he completed. The wind can work with the fire starters or against them.

First the experts check the lay of the land to see which is the optimal direction for the "drift." For example, firefighters avoided Rodewald's home and the newly planted pine trees on one part of his land, as well as his neighbors' houses.

Rodewald said he called his neighbors to let them know about the fire.

Interim Fire Chief Chris Cernohous said the burn needs a little wind to propel it, but it can't be too strong or blowing the wrong direction. Before beginning, firefighters test the wind by igniting a piece of material and using a flapper tool to extinguish it. Then they watch the ash to see which way it floats.

Rodewald had plowed a swath around his 12-acre field that went down to the dirt, creating a barrier to help contain the fire. Firefighters use drip torches to start the fires, first burning a border around the site to manage the flames.

Firefighters then burned the Rodewalds' 12-acre site in three sections, taking about an hour and a half to complete the job. They started with the end section, which burned until it met the border and plowed barrier.

Then they lit the middle section, allowing the wind to carry the flames all the way across to the already-blackened end. Next they ignited the front section and the wind carried flame across it to meet the blackened middle section.

Rodewald watched the fire with interest but said he wasn't nervous about flames.

"Fire is natural to the prairie," he said, so to him the burn was much like what nature might do with lightning or another kind of natural spark.

Next day, more fire

Kinnickinnic Land Trust Director Nelson French said the DNR and several UW-River Falls students in a fire operations class came to the town of Kinnickinnic Saturday to conduct a prescribed burn on 13 acres of the KRLT-owned Kelly Creek Preserve .

Mike Kaltenberg, UW-RF Professor in Plant and Earth Science, said, "Prescribed burning is becoming an increasingly important tool in managing fire-dependent ecosystems, such as the tallgrass prairie, for habitat improvement and invasive-species management."

Eric Forward, conservation programs manager at KRLT, said, "The Kelly Creek Preserve protects a critical spring which provides cold, clean and clear water to the Kinnickinnic River and the restored prairie grassland provides a natural buffer to the spring and provides wonderful wildlife habitat for a variety of species."

French says much of the 66-acre Kelly Creek Preserve has been restored to native prairie and oak savanna and is open to the public. Find more information about the preserve at

A USDA brochure on prairie restoration says Wisconsin used to have 2.1 million acres of natural prairie, of which about 10,000 remain and are fragmented.

In addition to plant species Rodewald mentioned, USDA lists blazing star, shooting star, sunflowers and the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid as species native to Wisconsin's prairies.

Animals species that natural grasses and prairie can benefit include all kinds of birds as well as the northern harrier; ornate box turtle; goshawk; eastern and western meadowlark; monarch, regal fritillary and the Karner blue butterfly; and the American badger.