Monday, October 11, 2010

Indian Summer in the Ozark Highlands




NOAA's red flag warnings and High Fire Danger notices persisted throughout the Ozarks last week, serving as an indicator that historically, Missouri's highly flammable landscapes burned during Indian summer. In fact, thick, rank bluestem on glades and in woodlands and waist high asters and goldenrods burn so well this time of year that most officials are hesitant to even allow rural residents to burn their corn fields for fear of setting the world on fire.




Fires implemented in late October are less likely to encourage a flush of fresh green warm season grasses and spring blooming wildflowers as early September fires do. To revisit an old saw, implementing the natural processes at varying times of the year will help to restore or maintain high quality ecosystems with their full complement of native flora.

Combing through the dog-eared copy of Schoolcraft's journals a few weeks ago, I ran across passages written in early November. Schoolcraft commented that the thick grasses he had encountered earlier that week had been recently burned all the way to the riverfront, "a dreary and desolate place" without firewood or green grass for his horse. As late as the 1930s (evidenced by 1938 aerial photos), thick warm season grasses dominated most of the woodlands in the Ozarks. Down in the White River Hills, trees were so widely scattered that even as recent as the 1930s, travelers would be hard pressed to find sufficient firewood. Prairie grasses and forbs and fire-adapted trees mantled the Ozarks before European settlement, and prairie grasses burn beautifully in October. Prescribed fire during Indian summer may knock back the tail end of blooming fall wildflowers, but will spring life anew the following March.




7 comments:

Justin Thomas said...

Sweet post, Allison. I feel like I am out of the loop on this whole growing season burn issue (even as early as September and October). The last I heard is that the antecedent for modern prescribed fire is fall (dormant season) burning by native peoples. Just so I and your readers are better informed, perhaps you could direct us to some literature sources. Thanks!

Allison Vaughn said...

Justin, will do. Unfortunately, in our fuels, very little has been published/researched. My wonderful boss is putting together a presentation about it, and i'm funding a research project that will show benefits/results. Because of the high forb diversity associated with growing season fire, it's hard to deny that they were part of the natural equation. Even without native americans, wildfires occurred in late summer-early fall. Actually, going through the fire history from HHT for the past 30 years(!!!), wildfires were more common than rx in the 80s and 90s. They generally put a ring around them and let them burn 300, 400 ac at a time, but to suggest that fuels aren't flammable this time of year (which I know you're not) is peculiar, at best. Grass burns in Indian summer. It does in the south in pine savanna, it does on prairies of southwest Missouri, and it does on high quality sites in the Ozarks where grass dominates. I'll ask Paul and Ken for literature sites....as you know, real ecologists are extremely rare.

Travis said...

we are all aware that the native americans started many (most) of the fires for thousands of years here. lightning fires might be able to roar across the plains, but we have too many rivers and creeks that served as fire breaks to stop these, so most of our fires were probably indian caused.
anyway, most of the fires that were used to drive the game were growing season burns. don't just look in ecology papers, but anthropology as well. i'll dig around here and see what i can come up with.

Allison Vaughn said...

I'm of course aware about anthropogenic fires, but I'm dubious about Guyette's claim that lightning fires didn't occur much in the Ozarks. I don't buy it. I see cross timbers country, western ozarks, heading into the prairie of the Meramec hills and even as far down as where I was this week --cape girardeau with post oaks on ridges, moist coves protected by fire. I understand fire shadows and the big rivers, and fire shadows on smaller scale, but I think most growing season fires occurred naturally even before Native Americans. we'll see what paul says, but, man, truman, pomme, and losp were so totally flammable this week...

Justin Thomas said...

I'm a lowly field hand so what do I know about anything, but I can't help but think that the use and encouragement of growing season burns without studies regarding the long-term impact to the communities involved (especially given the recent calls for concern coming from local entomologists) is reckless and undefendable.

Sagan said it best, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

Allison Vaughn said...

I have the results of a study I conducted at HHT on Heimbaugh Hill over two years tracking growing season versus dormant season burns. Will write it up tomorrow. The RIV and forb diversity of growing season far outweighs the late spring and fall, but as I always maintain, one must have diversity in a fire regime. Not every year during the growing season, spring, fall, whenever, but as part of a regular fire program one must diversify the seasons for burning. What say Missourians to the Ouachitas who burn almost exclusively during the growing season? And the pine woodlands in Louisiana that depend on growing season fires? Will show statistics tomorrow. I've been on the road for four days. Need sleep.

Allison Vaughn said...

I don't want you to think I'm dodging the questions, but my data are on my desk in JC. I have graphs here, but they don't make much sense without the numbers. I'll be back at the office on Monday and will post Monday night.