Recap & Interview: March 2014 Forest Park Controlled Burn

On March 11, 2014, Forest Park Forever and DJM Ecological Services, with funding support from the Missouri Department of Conservation, teamed up to conduct a controlled burn of three different sites within Forest Park’s Nature Reserve. In all approximately 7.5 acres of wildlife habitat was burned. The areas burned include two large portions of the Kennedy Savanna and over half of Wildlife Island in Post-Dispatch Lake. 

These burns will help control the negative impacts of invasive and exotic species, like Bush Honeysuckle, in these areas. These habitats will also benefit from an influx of nutrients into the soils now that previous dead vegetation debris has been burned away and sunlight can reach the soil more readily. This influx of nutrients should provide many of the native species with lots of energy to grow quickly and bloom brightly this spring and summer. The timing of the controlled burn was such that most native plants should see the same emergence, leaf-out and bloom times as normal or perhaps even slightly sooner. 

Thanks to all of the organizations and Forest Park visitors who help to support these efforts and came out to watch and ask questions. Forest Park Forever would like to urge everyone to keep an eye on these areas this growing season and return regularly to see how quickly the native vegetation and wildlife recover and flourish after these exciting burn events. 


Interview with Park Ecologist Peter VanLinn 

FPF Park Ecologist Peter VanLinn (left)

FPF Park Ecologist Peter VanLinn (left)

Just after our March controlled burn took place, Forest Park Forever Park Ecologist Peter VanLinn sat down with local writer Denecah Nickerson to discuss why and how controlled burns are undertaken. 

Quite a few folks passing by Forest Park recently saw clouds of smoke coming from the Kennedy Savannah and Wildlife Island. Was everything all right?
Not to worry; it was a prescribed burn, and it’s actually something we do about once a year. 

A prescribed burn — also known as a controlled burn — is a natural way to encourage the growth of Forest Park's native species: the plants and organisms that lived here well before there was a Forest Park. 

Just as important, the burn helps control several invasive species that make it difficult for native organisms to survive. Invasive species, as the name implies, are the unwanted plants and organisms that have swooped in over time due to human interaction.

Conducting a controlled burn is serious business. In fact, we did about seven years of planning before we did our first controlled burn in 2011. Since then, we’ve burned about 12 acres of land each year, choosing those Park areas that are most in need. We’re careful not to burn the same area more than once every three to five years, because of the specific habitats that we’re caring for and our management goals. 

So in this case, a forest fire can be a good thing?
Native species are usually deeply rooted and can withstand a surface-level sweep, such as a fire. The invasive species typically have shallow roots, meaning they grow very quickly, but can’t survive a fire. 

Rather than relying on chemicals to get rid of invasive species, controlled burns not only have less impact on the environment, they’re also less time-consuming and less expensive.

How do you decide when to do a burn?
As I mentioned, it takes a lot of planning, and timing is everything. We conduct our controlled burns after cold weather causes plants to brown, but before they’ve started their regeneration process. That usually puts us somewhere between mid-October and mid-March.

Humidity and ground moisture are other important variables we consider, and we also consult with the local Air Pollution Control Program to make sure the controlled burn won’t have an impact on air quality.

How do you make sure the fire doesn’t become an uncontrolled burn?
Each year, we’ve partnered with DJM Ecological Services to ensure that the burn is conducted safely and effectively, under the supervision of professionals. We also involve a number of other agencies in addition to the Air Pollution Control Program, including the St. Louis Fire Department and Metropolitan Police Department.

We’re very careful to assess wind direction and speed because they help us control the fire and the direction of the smoke dispersal. We also start the fire in the opposite direction of the wind, allowing it to spread more slowly and along the paths we’ve established.

We also use fire breaks in order to contain the fire within the burn unit. Because of the flames and high temperatures, we close some of the nearby trails and keep our Park guests at a safe distance of at least 30 feet, only allowing our professional crew to get closer to the fire.

Lastly, how do you stop the controlled burn?
We snuff out the flame with a combination of water, soil and flame retardant foam. And we do additional monitoring well after the fire is put out to make sure a gust of wind won’t restart any flames.

Questions about Forest Park's controlled burns? Contact Peter VanLinn, Park Ecologist with Forest Park Forever, at pvanlinn@forestparkforever.org or (314) 932-5950 .