Prescribed burn on Hazel Bird property, Rice Lake Plains, ON (Photo by NCC)

Prescribed burn on Hazel Bird property, Rice Lake Plains, ON (Photo by NCC)

Igniting restoration on the Rice Lake Plains

Prescribed burn on Hazel Bird property, Rice Lake Plains, ON (Photo by NCC)

Prescribed burn on Hazel Bird property, Rice Lake Plains, ON (Photo by NCC)

Each year, for the last 11 years, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has set fire to the Rice Lake Plains. It sounds odd — a conservation organization setting fire to a protected landscape — but fire is an important stewardship tool. 

Kindling regeneration

Fire is a natural, normal process in many ecosystems. It is beneficial and necessary to maintain a healthy forest and the diversity of plant and animal life.

Acting as nature's gardener, fire helps trim back trees and overgrown mature shrubs that shade out sun-dependent plants. After a burn, the blackened soil quickly absorbs sunlight and the warmed earth encourages seed germination. Charred plant remains turn into a rich fertilizer, encouraging new savannah growth to sprout from the network of root systems deep below the ground. Regeneration is noticeable as early as three days after a prescribed burn.

Fire also extends the growing season for native plants and helps to manage and reduce invasive species.

Carefully managed burns

Extensive planning is involved when organizing a prescribed burn, which can only be conducted under specific conditions. There are many variables that influence whether or not a prescribed burn can occur, including humidity, temperature and wind speed. 

“One interesting fact is that the ground is likely ready for a prescribed burn once the leaves on the ground sound like cornflakes when they are being crushed underfoot,” said NCC conservation biologist Val Diezel. Factors that influence fire behaviour are weather conditions, fuel characteristics and topography. 

The prescribed burns conducted on the various NCC sites are carried out by trained professionals. Detailed burn plans, fire permits and insurance are obtained in advance for each site. Leading up to the burns, NCC staff report weather conditions and inspect the area daily.

Maintaining Ontario’s grasslands

Prairie and savannah habitats are among the world’s rarest and most endangered ecosystems. These grasslands once covered 222 million acres (90 million hectares) across central Canada and the United States — an area almost equal to the total land mass of Ontario. Today, less than one per cent remains.

In Ontario, the Rice Lake Plains in Northumberland County contains excellent quality prairie remnants that can be restored by using prescribed burns. NCC uses these burns as part of a long-term program to restore tall grass prairie and oak savannah. This year’s burns are taking place on the Hazel Bird and Red Cloud nature reserves. Both properties host a rich mix of forest, savannah (including globally rare black oak) and grasslands.

Prescribed burning is an essential part of maintaining the botanical diversity of these savannah and woodland areas. Periodic fire prepares the ecosystem for natural regrowth, slows the growth of undesirable woody vegetation and stimulates dormant seeds to allow for savannah species to re-establish.

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