Beginning last Thursday, September 5th and throughout the weekend, 305 acres were prescribed burned in the Collons Allotment, 7 miles southeast of Chadron, NE. The number of acres reflects the fire perimeter, not how much of the landscape ended up black. The fire burned in a manner where patches of green vegetation stand out like islands in the ocean. This is the result fire managers planned for.
Fire is one of nature’s most powerful means of renewal. The forests of the Pine Ridge evolved with fire and fire creates conditions that many plant and animal species need to flourish. Prescribed fire is used to mimic wildfire but is done in a controlled manner and can have many different objectives. The Collons Allotment project is designed to diminish hazardous fuels which includes reducing 1) the large amount of dead and down trees from the 2006 wildfire, 2) the flammable living and dead vegetation under ponderosa pine stands, and 3) pine encroachment into natural meadows.
The decision to implement a prescribed burn is not taken lightly. The utmost consideration is the safety of the public and fire fighters involved as well as minimizing the impacts to local communities. September is often the best time of year for burning, as both weather and fuel conditions are within prescription. Burn prescriptions have specific ranges of temperature, relative humidity, wind speeds, and moisture in the vegetation that must be met prior to ignition. In addition, fire managers prepare the burn area for weeks prior to ignitions by mowing large strips of grass to provide vegetation breaks, trimming up tree branches, weed-whacking around fence posts, and establishing numerous water tanks on the perimeter for fire engines to re-fill. Lastly, as part of the burn prescription, there must be a minimum number of personnel on scene that are certified in various positions for both the prescribed burn and a number of contingency plans.
The recent prescribed burn in the Collons Allotment had 45 personnel on scene from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, Nebraska Forest Service, and Job Corps Center. Additionally, the Forest Service worked closely with the Chadron Volunteer Fire Department to secure a burn permit and ensure they were aware of the project. Large scale prescribed burns would not be possible without these strong partnerships among agencies. The U.S. Forest Service thanks all of the personnel from the agencies mentioned above as well as those in the surrounding communities that voiced their support.
These 305 acres are part of a larger plan that the agency intends to continue implementing this year and into the future. Many areas that burned during the 2006 and 2012 wildfires also need to be “re-set” and fire managers can assist this process through the use of prescribed fire. Fire releases nitrogen and other nutrients from woody vegetation back into the soil in the form of mineral-rich ash, which makes them readily available for new plant growth. Smaller controlled fires create more “edges” which are beneficial to maintaining a healthy wildlife habitat. In addition, re-sprouting shrubs and herbaceous plant species are more digestible for wild ungulates following fire. The grasses, seedling shrub, and trees that reestablish burned areas provide an ideal environment for many small seed-eating mammals and birds. This abundance of small prey attracts predators like foxes and hawks. Burned trees provide sites for cavity nesting birds like flickers and kestrels, while woodpeckers thrive on the insects that inhabit fire-killed trees.
The U.S. Forest Service will continue to implement prescribed burns across the landscape and will do their best to keep the surrounding communities informed before, during, and after. Visit the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands Facebook page (@NebraskaForestsGrasslands) to get the most up to date information about scheduled prescribed burns, see pictures, or ask questions. You can also visit the Pine Ridge Ranger District at 125 N. Main Street in Chadron or call at (308) 432-0300.