An indispensable tool in the management of prairies


Fire is an essential element of the prairie ecosystem. Many of the plants have evolved to adapt to the presence of fire, and to thrive in it. Today, natural fires have been all but removed from the ecosystem. If one wants to perpetuate the ecosystem, one has to use fire as a management tool. The resources found here are meant to help people understand the relationship of fires and the ecosystem, and how to properly, and safely apply those principles.

Who should/can/does perform prescribed burning on private land in Iowa?

The first issue of private land burning is definitely liability. Only one insurance company in the nation is known to insure private contractors who burn for a fee (the contractor is required to have a degree in forestry, and the policy ends with the first claim). Private landowners are usually covered for damages by their homeowners insurance. However, if a knowledgeable person is present during the burn, that person can be held responsible for any accidental damage.

How have people dealt with the liability issue?

In Texas and Oklahoma, landowners with vast amounts of rangeland or prairie form associations whose members agree not to sue the others in the event of fire escape. There are standards required for each prescribed burn, and a minimum amount of insurance is carried by the group leader.

Is there data that prove that prescribed fire is inherently dangerous?

Scott Moats, who is a burn crew leader for TNC in the Loess Hills, stated that 1 in 172 prescribed fires results in escape. Only one member of the discussion expressed belief that you can eliminate the risk of damage when burning. However, it was conceded that public perception and policy is usually based on wildfire statistics. The National Park Service prepares for escapes with software called “Behave” which predicts the behavior of fire in a particular scenario. In certain states, including FL and NC, there are specific standards for landowners performing a burn which help protect them from legal problems.

How are private landowners performing prescribed burns in Iowa?

Several groups in Iowa, including Indian Creek Nature Center, the Nature Conservancy, some CCBs and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and a few tools, along with one-day training sessions for landowners interested in burning their own land. One day of training is not considered adequate, and in fact, many landowners are convinced by the training that they can not handle a burn. TNC is developing a burn training video, to be used in conjunction with field training and as a refresher course for those who have received training in the past. In urban as well as rural areas, some have found that informing neighbors before the burn works well to prepare the public (so that windows are closed, nobody panics, etc.). In some counties, local fire departments will burn private lands for a donation from the landowner.

What are some precautions to be taken when burning private land?

Always write and follow a prescription. Watch a fire for a good hour or more after it appears to be done, to prevent unnoticed flare-up. Burning as evening approaches often creates a situation where burn conditions become less favorable as the burn progresses. Also, looking for burning embers in the dark is easier. Night burns are not recommended, as they tend to attract spectators who may put themselves or others in danger. Smoke on roadways is another important situation to prepare for. A vehicular accident caused by smoke is as likely to spur a law suit as a burned barn.

What can we do to bring fire back to the landscape where it is needed?

The best solution for private lands appears to be trained burn teams. Supported financially by various agencies in the state, thoroughly equipped to handle every aspect of prescribed burning, trained and physically fit, these teams could be deployed wherever they were needed throughout the burning seasons. This model already exists in some areas of the country. The National Park Service has employed such a team from South Dakota for areas in northeastern Iowa. The main obstacle is expense. There is federal funding available (Forest Service?) to enable fire suppression and control in some areas. Also, the conservation programs (including WHIP, CRP, WRP) that put a lot of native grasses on the ground may provide cost share funds to landowners for burning. The average cost to perform prescribed burning is around $100/acre, but this goes up significantly when more people, equipment and precautions are used. One study found that the more experienced a burn team leader, the more costly the burns become, since the experienced burn manager will take more precautions.

What are the criteria to identify a savanna?

Immediately we found differences of opinion, although not disagreement. Species composition, soil characteristics, topography (related to fire behavior), and canopy coverage were all aspects of the stand which individuals in the group (including DNR, ISU, USFWS, and others) identify savanna. Like prairie, savanna exhibits considerable variability based on moisture and climate. Experts in the group agreed that savanna is a continuum community, a transitional stage, never a stationary fixture in the landscape. It should be considered an ecosystem on the brink of extinction in Iowa.

What are the tools for managing Savanna?

Burning the undergrowth in a savanna creates an immediate and dramatic change on some sites, particularly with drier soils. Burning frequency and timing may be different for savanna systems than for prairie, and it seems that there are no current standards, only trial and error. Persistence is definitely required, as transforming the plant community from non-fire-tolerant species to appropriate fire-tolerant species takes time. Members of the discussion group see a need for comparison of management strategies and results for the various savanna types across the state. Some members of the group felt that unmanaged savanna becomes successional deciduous forest. Others felt that it would always be simply degraded savanna. The restoration of a savanna must respect the individuality of each community system, and management should be a tool to restore a savanna to its own natural state, rather than a set of calculated specifications. Cutting and/or spraying invasive shrubs is another widely used, labor intensive means of exposing the herbaceous layer. In many cases, attempted burns will not carry through a shrubby degraded savanna. There is anecdotal evidence that opening the canopy by girdling or removing larger trees in various spots within the degraded savanna enables patchy restoration which may be more effective than management across a site (referred to as “punching holes” in the stand, rather than sweeping through from one end to the other). Fire will burn more readily across these open spots where ground cover is heavier after thinning the canopy.

What are some effects of fire on savanna?

Although many species of oak and other deciduous trees are appropriate in various savanna types across Iowa, bur oak seems very common and well-adapted to fire. Oak recruitment is greater in burned areas. Individual survivors grow more quickly and more stout than unburned bur oak saplings. Neither cutting nor burning are effective methods for removing small bur oaks. Their deep root systems are strengthened by injury above ground. Another noted feature of bur oak is its adaptability to different sites. It is most common in uplands, but has also been found in sand bar savannas in a flood plain.

What role does savanna serve to make it attractive to the public and policy makers?

There is ample evidence of the role of savanna and prairie in landscape hydrology, which has implications for water quality and climate. The dense prairie sod that occurs below the trees in savanna holds more surface runoff than a heavily shaded, shrubby understory, while paradoxically using less water than an area thick with trees and shrubs. This tendency was illustrated by the restoration of a north-facing slope at Neil Smith where trees and shrubs were removed to encourage a degraded prairie plant community, including a patch of sedges, on the hillside. The result was that the bottomland, which had been a dry crop field, became a wet meadow. The restoration of natural hydrology to the soils provides needed habitat for invertebrates, creating more diverse wildlife habitat, and improves rainwater/snowmelt infiltration rates, which protects surface and ground water from contamination. The native vegetation also increases the available surface area for condensation, which decreases humidity in the immediate area during hot days. Carbon sequestration: Savanna has the potential to store more carbon than a forest, since the trees store carbon above ground, where it is eventually released with the death of the tree, while perennial native grasses and forbs have most of their biomass underground, where it is trapped (banked) permanently. Should all else fail, savanna is beautiful. It seems likely that early settlers built their houses within savannas, which were attractive, full of fuel wood and familiar because of the trees. Even now, savanna makes a nice backdrop for newer homes, although restoration and/or protection of the savanna may suffer from the proximity of a residence.

What is the fate of the savanna in Iowa?

Iowa DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Indian Creek Nature Center, US Fish & Wildlife and others have used the maintenance techniques described previously to restore degraded savanna, and all agreed that with persistence their efforts were successful, although almost no consistent monitoring has been done. Mesic savanna seems to be the most common and the least likely to be restored, since it is easily grazed or allowed to fill up with invasive species that give it the appearance of a forest. Wet savannas, the most difficult to restore, are probably most rare. There is rarely any financial or political incentive for landowners to protect, restore or reconstruct savanna. The state has specified that for a wooded acre to be eligible for tax forgiveness, it must contain 200 or more trees, which is more than a “healthy” savanna supports. On the other hand, Iowa’s Slough Bill, intended to provide tax relief for property allowed to remain in “prairie”, is optional for each county government. When it is implemented, a county assessor may increase the taxes on the remainder of the property, which denies the landowner the intended credit. Members of the discussion group suggested promoting a system of water credits or carbon credits for landowners who maintain healthy savanna or prairie remnants and buffers. The EPAs Phase II Stormwater regulations may spur more greenscaping in urban environments. Eventually our whole society must realize the value of protecting water, air, habitat and biodiversity.

More Resources

Iowa Burn Weather Forecasts – A very useful resource if you are planning a burn. Fire Effects Information System – A useful resource for determining the effects of fire on plant species.