When fire is life: ecological burn restores native habitat

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Approximately 80 acres at the Monroe Power Plant were recently set ablaze – deliberately — through what is known as a “prescribed ecological burn” conducted to help restore the property’s native ecosystem.

“The idea of introducing fire may seem counter-intuitive, as most think of fire as damaging,” said Matt Shackelford, environmental engineer, DTE. “But fire is an essential component of the ecosystem process as it enriches the soil, removes dead thatch and allows diverse native plant and animal communities to thrive.”

Prior to the practice of suppressing fires, which early American settlers began doing in the 1700s, many of our local ecosystems such as prairies, dry oak-hickory woodlands, and certain wetlands burned frequently.

“Today, many non-native plant species have invaded our natural fire-adapted ecosystems, decreasing the diversity of native plants and animals,” Shackelford said. “By bringing fire back to these sites we encourage the competitive advantage and evolution of native species and restore the site to its former ecological health.”

One of the more invasive species on the property is the common reed grass that fire cannot completely destroy. “The roots are so broad and deep, that fire will only cut the plants down, not eliminate them,” Shackelford said. “But it’s important that we burn them anyway because the reeds choke out all other living things – which means no bugs, so no birds, and ultimately no pollination.”

DTE contracted with David Borneman LLC to conduct the operation with the approval and oversight of the local fire department. Borneman has over 28 years of experience conducting prescribed, ecological burns. Prior to the controlled burn, Borneman installed “burn breaks” around the area to help control the fire.

“We conduct these types of burns in a slow and deliberate manner, with safety equipment on hand to monitor and control its spread at all times,” Borneman said. “We also do it in a way that minimizes the amount of smoke produced and direct any smoke away from smoke-sensitive areas as much as possible.”

According to Shackelford, the new native species will be restored quickly and the scorched land completely transformed by this coming September. “DTE is committed to being good stewards of our environment,” Shackelford said. “Improving our grounds is important to supporting native vegetation and wildlife.”

Currently, 36 DTE facilities have received Wildlife Habitat Council certification for improving their grounds to support native wildlife. The Monroe power plant property has been awarded several environmental achievements, including being a certified Clean Corporate Citizen by the state of Michigan since 2008, and is home to many threatened and endangered species, such as bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcon and American lotus blossoms.