How do controlled burns help Mother Nature?

To some, the days leading up to Thanksgiving are for hunting. For others, it's a time to prepare for the holidays ahead. For Erik Neidy, director of natural resources for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, it's burn season.

"There's really about a 10-window in the fall and a 10-day window in the spring," Neidy said. That's when conditions tend to be right for a slow, controlled burn of forest preserve land."

The ideal time for a fall burn comes when the leaves have fallen but before they're frozen or become covered in snow. In spring, burns need to happen after the ground is thawed, but before things begin to grow and turn green. Timing also is important for the protection of wildlife.

"This time of year, animals that can't get away are dormant. They've already taken a winter hiding place," Neidy said.

Most importantly, the wind must be just right for a safe burn to take place, Neidy said.

"We get complaints that we choose the nice days to burn," Neidy said. But the weather that draws people outside is also conducive to the best, safest controlled burns. Residences and businesses near burn sites are notified that a burn is scheduled to take place when conditions allow, and signs are placed in the area the day of the burn. Those with health conditions that require them to leave the area or stay indoors during a burn can request additional notifications, Neidy said.

Prescribed burns were once Mother Nature's way of replenishing the land, Neidy said.

"Prairies and forests used to burn regularly and were essential to the American landscape before the land was developed with homes and farms," he said.

DuPage County has been using controlled fires to maintain and restore its properties since the 1990s.

"We are bringing fire back to safely recreate what nature once did on its own," Neidy said.

Fire is the most effective way to rid an area of invasive species such as honeysuckle, buckthorn and red canary grass, Neidy said. Left unchecked, these plants can take over, making it difficult for native plants to grow.

Burns lead to a better food supply for wildlife, a reduction in stormwater runoff and more places for more creatures to live.

"It changes the whole ecosystem," Neidy said.

The DuPage County Forest Preserve District aims to burn about 5,000 of its 26,000 acres each year. On the schedule for this year are areas of Waterfall Glen near Darien, Fullersburg Woods and Mayslake in Oak Brook.

Burns are carried out by trained forest district staff, who remain on site until the fire is complete.

Neidy, who lives in Indiana, joined the DuPage County Forest Preserve District in 2001. Growing up in western Illinois, he spent lots of time exploring the outdoors and enjoying nature, which led him to earn a bachelor's degree in zoology followed by a master's degree in restoration ecology.

"Ending up here at the forest preserve is exactly what I wanted to do," Neidy said.

- by Sandy Illian Bosch

Author Bio

Sandy Illian Bosch is a contributing writer to The Hinsdalean