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Feeding the flames

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The Dickinson Press
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MEDORA -- As several yellow-clad prescribed fire specialists walked the lands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit, some sprayed patches of water while others left trails of fire in the first day of a prescribed burn Thursday afternoon.


"In the park we'll use it to support invasive plant control because frequently when you burn over an area you'll have weeds come up and that makes them very visible and accessible to herbicide application," said Bill Whitworth, chief of resource management at TRNP.

However, the rolling prairie's newly charred look won't last long.

"This will green up in a week," said Rod Skalsky, National Park Service fire management officer, also known as the "burn boss."

Skalsky said the burning can actually promote growth as all plant nutrients are tied up in dead, dry material.

Once it is burned, it becomes available for plants to use as nutrients again, Skalsky said.

Prescribed burns can also be used for hazardous fuel reduction, Whitworth said.

"We also have some areas where the understory is too thick and creates a risk of a catastrophic fire," Whitworth said.

Multiple federal agencies conduct burns, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, but some parts of TRNP have never been burned, Skalsky said.

"If you time your burns right, you can favor desirable species," he said, adding composition of plant species can also change.

Mother Nature and timing play key roles in conducting prescribed burns.

"We've got about three weeks that we can do spring burns before it gets too green," Whitworth said.

Green-up slows fire behavior, Skalsky said.

Contrary to popular belief, fire technicians do not light the fire and let it go. It is monitored constantly.

Along with timing, a meticulous recipe for prescribed burns is followed, including a weather prescription.

Skalsky said he checks in with the National Weather Service about every hour to receive updates on wind conditions, temperature and relative humidity.

The wind can actually work in the technician's favor sometimes as it will carry the fire.

About four engines and 17 prescribed fire specialists fanned across the park's prairie, first spraying a wet line, followed with a specialist applying fire with a drip torch.

Depending on what the objective is and wind conditions, different types of fire can be implemented, Skalsky said.

According to the NPS website, "burning key areas in advance, thereby removing fuels from the path of a future unwanted fire, can protect specific buildings, cultural resources, critical natural resources and habitats."

Whitworth said the burn creates diversity in plant height and when that occurs, it attracts different insects, which in turn attracts different wildlife.

"You use fire like any other tool, in moderation," Whitworth said.