Prescribed burns part of conservation, nature’s cycle

Long before Europeans settled in Illinois and transformed the Prairie State into what it is today, fire fueled the land.

Landscape scale fire, both natural and indigenous-led, helped create the millions of acres of former tallgrass prairie that flourished in the state in the early 1800s. Today, countless Illinois environmental groups — including the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — follow in the footsteps of indigenous people using fire as a land management tool.

“Today, prescribed fire is the most important management practice in maintaining and restoring healthy landscapes,” according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

To recycle nutrients in the soil, increase the health of native plants and keep invasive species like honeysuckle and buckthorn in check, Barrington-based Citizens for Conservation regularly conducts burns in various portions of its 777 acres.

“Recent scientific research has shown that seeds from certain plants will not germinate without being exposed to heat, smoke or boiling water, thus highlighting the evolutionary relationship between healthy ecosystems and this ancient process,” according to Fermilab.

Before Citizens for Conservation conducts a burn, trained volunteers make sure they have their local and state permits in hand, carefully review wind speed and direction data from the National Weather Service and alert nearby neighbors such as hospitals and office buildings.

“We’re very mindful of where we’re burning so as not to disturb the community,” group Vice President Jim Anderson said.

Equipped with hard hats, face protectors, walkie talkies and flame-resistant jumpsuits, volunteers keep their fires in line using portable water hoses and rakes to clear brush away from the burn perimeter.

“Most of the burns are calm and not exciting, and that’s the way we like it,” group member Stephen Barten said.

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

  Volunteers with the Friends of the Forest Preserve keep a prescribed burn in line with water hoses. Jenny Whidden/
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