Where There’s Smoke There’s Prescribed Fire
If you were anywhere near Dune Acres on Monday, November 9th, you undoubtedly witnessed the rising smoke that signaled the planned prescribed burn to the south and east of the town was underway. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s fire effects crew administered the burn, which spanned the area from Mineral Springs Road all the way to Porter Beach and from the Cowles Bog Parking lot as far north as Plampin Park. Together this area is referred to as the Howes Prairie/Lupine Lane “burn unit.” According to the NPS’s burn boss, Neal Mulconrey, the burn went “very well” and successfully achieved the mosaic pattern of burned and unburned areas that they strive for.
The purpose of prescribed burning is twofold: to reduce the buildup of combustible fuel (e.g. leaves, brush, etc.) and as a tool to help restore and maintain the savanna and prairie ecosystems. According to the folks at Pleasant Valley Conservancy, fire has provided the same advantages throughout history. Fire was ignited by lighting and other natural causes and by humans as well. In the midwest, “…fire was used by Native Americans to encourage berry production, expose acorns for collection, fireproof villages…concentrate game, and help maintain trails.”
The website goes on to explain the sea-change in attitudes toward fire, beginning in the late 19th century. The accumulation of dried slash from logging operations created landscapes prone to dangerous high-intensity wildfires. State laws were enacted and, at the federal level, “Smoky the Bear” was created as an icon of fire suppression. It was one of the most effective public relations campaigns ever, but had unintended consequences. Without periodic fire, the remaining prairies and oak savannas were slowly overcome by woody brush, invasive plants, and other undesirable tree species. To be sure, fires were less frequent, but when they occurred, they could be ferocious. The 1949 Dune Acres fire is case in point. Historical images show evidence that the fire must have been uncontrollable—it easily leapt over water and roadways as it raced from the rail tracks to the doorstep of the clubhouse.
By the 1970s ecologists began recognize the natural processes that had been disrupted and reintroduced fire as a land management tool. Prescribed burns are now used throughout the country, safely and with tremendous benefit. The NPS first burned Howes Prairie/Lupine Lane in 1986 and has been burning it every several years since that time. This year, the total area encompassed 174 acres.