Washtenaw County Arranges Controlled Burns to Promote a Healthier Ecosystem

There will be no need for alarm when certain people start setting things on fire across certain sections of Washtenaw County this spring. They will be part of a controlled burn program authorized by the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office to help nurture a healthier and more native ecosystem.

Also called prescribed burns, this practice is in furtherance of green infrastructure tools like rain gardens. This urban planning and environmental approach attempts to fight climate change and make cities more livable by incorporating the natural ecosystem into the space humans live in sustainably – by recycling water, maximizing shade, and incorporating natural green space into cities – rather than exploit and destroy it to make way for humans. 

Photo by Thomas Nighswander.

Ann Arbor-based PlantWise Restoration has been hired by the county to do the actual burns.

“Green infrastructure is basically the idea of trying to keep water in place rather than have the water flow across the landscape, into storm drains and into creeks and rivers,” Plantwise owner David Mindell said.  “[Having] green infrastructure elements into the landscape capture the water right where it falls slowly allows the water to percolate down into the soil and partly evaporate.”

That slows the water down as a way to offset the concrete and metal humans have built, which sends the water down the Huron and out of the county faster than it would naturally. 

Flora native to North America evolved to be used to handle fire because Native American groups have used burns for centuries

“Fires keep areas open. They provide a host of nutrients and open [to keep ecosystems healthy],” Tony Rezniecek, a vascular plants curator who recently retired from the University of Michigan’s Herbarium, explained. “They are also important for some trees, in particular oak and some pine.” 

This all changed with the arrival of European newcomers who established an old world approach to agriculture and then eventually cities. The problem with this ecologically is that as native plants got gradually outgrown by invasive species, mostly from Europe and Asia, native species have declined, worsening the overall health of the ecosystem continent-wide. 

This started to be rethought decades ago, as well as the decades-old practice of preventing North America’s natural forest fires with a policy of never, ever letting the land burn. But scientific and historical breakthroughs made through the last decades have led to the reintroduction of managed fires like the ones pioneered by Native Americans. 

The WCWRCO maintains a list of 35 areas around Washtenaw County to be managed with these burns to encourage the natural cycle of burning and renewal to both help native species and eliminate invasive species. 

Only a handful are burned every year, on a two to three year schedule. According to a press release from the County, this spring will see burns at the Arbor Oaks rain gardens, Belize Park rain garden, a site at the corner of Kingsley and First, Garden Homes at the corner of Miller Avenue and Franklin Street, Veterans Park, West Park, and by the Ann Arbor Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Mindell said that safety and weather conditions mean that the specific time and date of each burn has to be decided the day they do it for safety reasons. 

“The plan sets what kind of wind direction, humidity and temperature is allowable for that particular type [of burn],” WCWRCO’s Catie Wytychak said.

Fire departments are consulted before each burn. Notices will be sent out to locals within a set distance before a burn happens. 

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