Controlled burns restore ‘natural rhythm of the land’

More than 1,000 acres to be burned this season in and around Hitchcock Nature Center.
More than 1,000 acres are to be burned this season in and around Hitchcock Nature Center.
Published: Nov. 23, 2022 at 10:53 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - In the natural world, fire is good. The first to live on this land knew it.

“They understood the role that fire plays on the landscape,” Pottawattamie County Conservation natural resources specialist Chad Graeve said. “They understood that the plants come back healthier, understood that the palatability is higher for the bison and that attracts the bison, which was a mainstay for the Great Plains people. They just understood that it’s kind of like the natural rhythm of the land. it needs to burn periodically.”

This week Graeve and a crew made up of firefighters and specialists from various agencies in the area are doing prescribed burns in and around Hitchcock Nature Center in Pottawattamie County. On Thanksgiving eve, they burned only a small unit or section, starting with the area adjacent to where there’s risk of damage to structures.

“We have our headquarters for the natural areas program right here with the barn sitting on top of the hill where fire (could) run uphill, so it’s in a bad location,” he said. “We always start... when we’re full of water, where we’re fresh, we had all of our crew together we’re most ready to deal with something.”

How they do it is well coordinated.

“(Wednesday) we started working around (the edges) and back burning away from the features that we need to protect,” he said. “And then we get strung out because one squad goes one direction carrying fire on that side of the unit, one squad goes the other direction carrying fire on that side of the unit and we’re basically lighting right along our control lines and keeping it contained and then letting it work into the unit.”

To make it simple, “Color right along the lines and then fill it in.”

Why they do these burns requires a serious answer.

“Our culture has had this attitude that, we’re in control, we’ll make it do what we want it to do, and we put out fire for a long time,” Graeve said. “This system is not healthy now. It needs fire. We’ve lost the sunlight because there are so many trees because there was no fire, so we’re cutting trees to get some light back into the ground and we’re burning to stimulate the native vegetation, we’re finding out that water is now infiltrating, is soaking into the ground better, everything needs water to live, so processes are being restored and the system is getting healthier year by year.”

In the year to come, Hitchcock Nature Center will be officially adding 400 acres. Graeve is building trails and preparing the adjacent land for the public, but he’s not concerned about taking it on from a conservation standpoint because they have been sharing stewardship with those acres along the way.

“We’ve actually been burning most of that and taking care of most of that for about 20 years, Graeve said. “We’ve always had a good relationship with our neighbors and they let us burn on their property and in some cases we’ve been cutting trees and trying to restore prairie.”

“It’s really neat country, I’m excited to share it with the people.”

Graeves said that fire lines will continue to burn during the week, and he is monitoring them continuously. Hitchcock Nature Center remains open, but visitors are of course advised to prepare for smoke. In the spring, of course, they’ll be able to enjoy what the controlled burns have helped restore. They recommend checking their Facebook page for updates.