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Igniting the prairie

Press Photo by John Odermann A park service firefighter stands and observes a prescribed burn on Tuesday at Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit. The park sets fires each year to help manage its ecosystem and encourage diversity in its plant growth.

NEAR WATFORD CITY -- Those driving into the valley which holds the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit may have been worried Tuesday as smoke rose from the park.

That is at least until they saw the orange sign on the side of the road reading, "prescribed burn, do not report."

The North Unit of TRNP held the first scheduled prescribed burn of the year Tuesday. Workers will burn about 450 acres in the North Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit between now and May 12.

"Fire is an important tool used to protect, preserve and maintain healthy prairie ecosystems within the park," said Valerie Naylor, park superintendent. "The variety of plants and animals that people expect to see in the national parks is partially the result of past fire activity."

The fires are set in strategic places to restore habitat, reduce hazardous fuel and stop woody encroachment, said Rod Skalsky, North Dakota National Parks fire management officer.

"In Theodore Roosevelt we're burning for species diversity and habitat maintenance," Skalsky said.

Some plant species thrive following a fire, Skalsky said, which can lead to certain species that have been dormant coming back stronger or a seed bed opening up so other species can germinate.

Determining which areas of the park are burned each year is a complex process, Skalsky said, and numerous variables are considered.

"Depending on the landscapes and the burn objectives, there's a whole myriad of things that go into that," Skalsky said, adding that weather is also a considerable factor in whether or not a burn will take place.

Fire advisories in Golden Valley, Billings and McKenzie counties Tuesday were concerned, but Skalsky said relative humidity and wind speed were at a comfortable level.

"We'll have folks out on the burn checking it tomorrow," Skalsky said.

The fires are utilized in an effort to reproduce naturally burning fires that would burn through the area before it was settled.

If a fire starts inside the park's boundaries, park officials have the authority to use that fire to perform the same kind of maintenance goals the prescribed burns seek to achieve.

The prescribed burn units vary in size from five to 117 acres and will be completed during the day. Thirty-four acres in the Elkhorn Ranch Unit and 416 acres in the North Unit will be burned.

"This will be our first prescribed fire at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit," Naylor said. "We will be burning some of the grasslands areas of the unit to cut down on hazardous fuels and assist with weed control efforts. The Elkhorn Ranch is an important part of the park, and we are pleased to be able to restore fire to the area."