The prescription for Michigan: More fire

By Marie Orttenburger

Illustrations by Spencer High

Some of Michigan’s native ecosystems can persist only if they are periodically engulfed in flames.

This is the case for the oak savanna, an open field interspersed with wide-growing oaks. Thanks to the spaced-out configuration of the trees, the understory of the savanna receives varying levels of sunlight—from pure sun, to dappled partial shade, to cool, full shade. Different plants thrive in different parts of the savanna, creating a biodiverse mosaic of flora that attracts a likewise diverse family of fauna.

Oak savannas occur on dry, sandy—or “xeric”—soils. Prairie grasses and wildflowers thrive in these soils, and along with the crispy dead leaves that fall from the oaks, they provide great conditions for fire. When a fire reaches an oak savanna, it slowly crawls through as it feeds on these fuels.

Many plants that do well in xeric conditions have adapted to thrive with periodic fire.

Oaks, for example, have adaptations at nearly every stage of their life cycle that help them survive when fires pass through. Their acorns germinate underground, protecting the delicate bud from the heat of fire on the surface. They prioritize root growth before stem growth, meaning that once the roots have developed enough, there’s a better chance the seedling could regrow after being topkilled by a fire. 

Fire also supports this kind of growth: To produce wide root systems, oak seedlings need ample sunlight. Fire keeps other trees and shrubs from casting shade on baby oaks. As adults, oaks have especially thick bark that better withstands fire, and when the tree is scarred by fire, it can compartmentalize the wound and prevent decay from spreading.

Oaks not only persist but thrive when fire happens somewhat frequently. By comparison, their mesophytic, or moisture-loving, counterparts, like beech and red maple, don’t stand a chance.

Oak acorn germination prioritizes root growth first, which gives oak seedlings an advantage when fire comes through. Image: Spencer High

But after 150 years of fire suppression in Michigan, mesophytic species have had plenty of time to take over. Now, oak populations are declining swiftly, and fire-dependent ecosystems have been reduced to a fraction of their original foothold in the state.

“When we look at, for example, our prairies, barrens and savanna systems and compare their current distribution to their historical distribution, they’ve dropped to less than .02% of their circa-1800 extent,” said Josh Cohen, the lead ecologist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI). “With that drop in those fire-dependent systems you have a drop in the species that depend on them.”

Some of Michigan’s most familiar endangered species prefer the habitat provided by these systems: the Eastern box turtle, the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake and the Karner blue butterfly, to name a few. But without regular fire, these species have fewer and fewer places to live. This habitat loss has contributed to a great decline in Michigan’s biodiversity that is only becoming greater.

Volunteer prescribed burn crew member wields a rake and a water pump backpack—tools that ensure a burn conducted at The Highlands, a nature preserve in Grand Rapids, stays within its unit. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

Prescribed fire—a planned, controlled fire used to meet management objectives—can help restore these lost ecosystems—and maybe hope for the critters that are suffering in their absence.

. . .

Cohen co-authored a recently published assessment of the ecological need for prescribed fire in Michigan. Its conclusion: We need more, particularly in the southwest portion of the state, where prairie and savanna systems used to flourish.

Of the 441 vascular plants that MNFI tracks listed as threatened or endangered or of special concern, 100 of those are limited to prairie and savanna ecosystems and are concentrated in Southwest Michigan, Cohen said.

The model Cohen helped create integrates a suite of data to produce a “fire needs score” for specific forest stands on state land. A forest stand is a contiguous group of trees with enough shared characteristics to be a distinguishable unit.

What exactly does it mean for a forest stand today, after 150 years of fire suppression and a lot of landscape changes, to “need” fire?

“We use ‘need’ as a way of saying: ‘Is fire likely to occur given the biotic and abiotic factors that occur in a given place?’” Cohen said.

If, for example, a given stand has a southwest-facing slope and flatter terrain (abiotic factors), and is home to species like big bluestem, a tall prairie grass, or Karner blue butterfly (biotic factors), the fire needs score for that stand is higher. If the stand is home to ecosystems or species that are fire sensitive, like a cedar swamp or marbled salamander, then its fire needs score is lower. The model also accounts for complexities like the presence of fire-tolerant invasive species or rare species that are fire-sensitive but depend on fire-dependent habitat.

The fire needs scores for selected input variables and the total fire needs score for Allegan State Game Area. Source: Cohen, et al.

This information has great potential to help guide Michigan land managers in prioritizing where and how they apply prescribed fire and perhaps meet more of those fire needs.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Division sponsored MNFI’s creation of this model, and the assessment is focused on state land. MNFI has adapted the model to be used elsewhere in the state, with coarser, less-detailed data inputs.

“The question that was asked years ago was ‘How much (prescribed fire) is enough?’ The work MNFI did helped address that,” said Mark Sargent, the southwest regional supervisor for the Wildlife Division. “It’s way more than we can do. But we will use that information to help prioritize what we can do and where we’re going to do it on the landscape.”

The assessment’s call to action is clear, but much stands in the way of getting more fire on the ground. The stark disparity between the amount of fire that is needed and how much is applied may also highlight structural barriers within the organizations charged with caring for Michigan’s natural lands.

. . .

As it is, the DNR isn’t able to complete the burns it prescribes each year. Lack of funding and personnel are hurdles, and burn prescriptions can require precise weather conditions that limit the window of time within which a burn can be completed. A number of important stars have to align in order to set fire to a burn unit.

Sargent said his team usually only completes 20 to 30 of the 60 to 80 burns his team prescribes for his region each year.

“We have the need and the environmental priority of doing a lot more burning than we can conduct in a given year,” Sargent said. “Our capacity, both financial and as far as personnel, allows us to do a very small part of that.”

Ecological need, though important, isn’t the only force dictating where the DNR uses burns. Each of its divisions—Wildlife, Parks and Recreation, and Forest Resources—produces burn prescriptions for different reasons, from managing elk habitat, to protecting highly flammable jackpine stands and timber resources, to burning brush to clear out a historic racetrack at Fayette State Park. Every division sends its prescription proposals to the Forest Resources Division’s fire program, which is then tasked with implementing the burns.

Glenn Palmgren is a DNR fire management specialist.

“It’s my job as well as all of the rest of us in the fire program to take the proposals that are submitted to us and turn those into burn plans, where basically we determine what kind of burn is needed to meet the objectives that a land manager has for that particular piece of ground, and how to do that safely and with the right resources,” he said.

Native wildflowers packera and wild blue lupine photographed at Allegan State Game Area. Image: Robby Wrench

The Wildlife Division accounts for most of the fire prescriptions the DNR executes. The division gets much of its funding from hunting licenses and prioritizes supporting habitat for game species like elk, ruffed grouse and ring-necked pheasant. Sometimes, using fire for wild game habitat helps restore and support native ecosystems, too.

“A lot of the work we’ve done in the last 100 years has benefited both game and non-game species,” Sargent said. “Allegan State Game Area is the motherload for the Karner blue butterfly. We might call it turkey habitat, we might call it Karner blue butterfly habitat, but it pretty much looks like the same thing.”

In other parts of the state where the DNR applies prescribed fire, there isn’t that same mutual benefit.

“There’s often a use of resources to promote warm season grass plantings in parts of the state where those systems didn’t historically occur,” Cohen said. “For example, the use of fire in the Thumb area—lots and lots of warm season grass plantings in areas that were historically beech-maple-hemlock forest.

“There’s a similar pattern of management in the Pigeon River country, where a lot of openings are maintained for elk. Historically elk did occur in Michigan, but the current herd is introduced. Part of the way resource managers maintain elk on that landscape is by managing these large wildlife openings that are geared for elk but not necessarily geared toward the promotion of fire-dependent ecosystems in those areas,” he said.

When the agency’s limited burning capacity is being used to meet these priorities, it detracts from the state’s land managers’ capacity to meet the ecological fire needs of Michigan’s native ecosystems.

. . .

In the U.S. Forest Service, timber priorities also stand in the way of applying burns where they might be needed. Brian Stearns, an assistant fire manager who works on fuels management for the Forest Service, uses prescribed fire to mitigate catastrophic wildfires and how it impacts communities at the “wildland-urban interface”—where nature meets neighborhoods. Proactive prescribed burning reduces the amount of stuff a wildfire might otherwise burn up. When a wildfire reaches a previously burned forest, it doesn’t burn as quickly or as intensely. Fire breaks—areas where fire fuel has been completely removed—can stop a wildfire in its tracks. Using fire this way protects buildings and important habitats.

In recent years, Stearns has found his unit’s objectives at odds with others within the Forest Service.

“Especially in the last five years, the timber target for timber production, lumber sales, has gone up. So they’re under pressure to get more board feet out the door. At the fuels program, we’re under more pressure to treat more acres to protect more property,” Stearns said.

But treating a forest with prescribed fire runs the risk of charring timber and diminishing its value.

“For us to treat something, it does potentially have an impact on timber sales, and both of our targets are going up,” Stearns said. “That’s a big area of friction that I see.”

. . .

Another major extinguisher of prescribed fire for both the DNR and the Forest Service: the same staff members who conduct prescribed burns are called on to suppress wildfires.

“For a lot of our fire staff, their primary funding for their position is based on wildfire protection. That’s a mission of the department—it’s a legislative obligation of the department to do forest fire protection,” Palmgren said. “When we get into high fire danger times, a lot of our staff are being pulled to do wildfire work. Because of that, they can’t do prescribed burning.”

When the same staff is forced to choose whether to stop an out-of-control fire that might endanger human lives or set a controlled one to help an endangered butterfly, the answer is obvious.

“Anybody in the DNR is going to say: ‘You need to go make sure you’re protecting people’s lives.’ Nobody’s going to argue with that,” Cohen said. “But maybe if you had a different structure, then you wouldn’t have that competition.”

More staff, and staff dedicated to prescribed fire, might solve this.

“Staffing is a big issue. Trying to have more staff from all divisions—from Parks, Wildlife, Forest Resources—more fire-line qualified staff available to do that would be great. I think that is what’s going to be necessary,” Palmgren said. 

Palmgren said that might require funding and staff that are dedicated to prescribed fire, so that wildfire suppression efforts aren’t competing with proactive, protective and restorative prescribed burning.

As climate change likely lengthens and intensifies the annual wildfire season in Michigan, this will only become more of a problem. The irony is that applying more prescribed fire would likely reduce the damage done by wildfires—even prevent it from spreading to some areas.

“By not applying fire now, we are doing a huge disservice to the resilience of our forests to face the fires that are going to increase in the future,” said Andy Vander Yacht, the chairperson of the Michigan Prescribed Fire Council.

. . .

Big agencies like the DNR and the Forest Service aren’t the only ones that can set flame to an overcrowded oak savanna. Smaller organizations like land trusts and independent contractors can also use fire to manage private lands. These groups face many of the same challenges: Limited funding, expensive equipment and finicky weather conditions can all prohibit prescribed fire.

But one challenge bears more weight for these groups. The number-one hurdle identified by members of the Michigan Prescribed Fire Council—a group established to “protect, conserve and expand the safe use of prescribed fire on the Michigan landscape”—was “liability, legislation and risk management.” The survey respondents included independent contractors, state and federal agency employees, nonprofit staff and others.

“It’s like bringing your child to the store: If that child breaks something, you’re liable for it,” Vander Yacht said. “You light the match, you’re responsible for that fire, whatever it does.” 

Michigan is a limited liability state, meaning that if an independent prescribed fire company started a fire that got out of control, it would have to be proven negligent to be successfully sued. Still, the risks loom large.

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan has its own burn crew composed of staff and volunteers. When the organization’s staff and committees were exploring establishing the crew, liability was a major hurdle—rooted mostly in lack of clarity about what the organization’s insurance policy actually covered. Originally, they were told by their company that they would have to pay an extra $20,000 a year.

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan’s prescribed burn crew burns a prairie restoration area at The Highlands, a Grand Rapids nature preserve, in spring 2021. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

“We were ready to pull the plug on it,” said Justin Heslinga, stewardship director at the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. “Then one day we got an email from the insurance company that said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re actually just covered under your general policy. No increase in premiums.’”

Other organizations and independent contractors are not so lucky. A major issue is that there isn’t an accessible certification program for those who would like to safely conduct burns.

“Everybody asks, ‘Are you certified to burn?’ No. Nobody is certified to burn. Nobody in Michigan is certified. There’s no mechanism to get certified. Even contractors who do this day in and day out, writing 100-acre burns, they have no more qualifications than you,” Heslinga said.

Me! A humble journalist!

The only certification that exists for prescribed burning is provided by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG)—and this is the standard preferred by the DNR and Forest Service. The NWCG training takes years to complete and requires on-the-ground experience on wildfires.

“For a private landowner or a small non-governmental agency that wants to use prescribed fire, there’s no way their staff can achieve those high fire training standards that often require working on some wildfires,” said Jack McGowan-Stinski, program manager for the Lake States Fire Science Consortium. “It’s just not easily achievable. It’s not in their mission, it’s not in their finances.”

In Michigan, legislation exists that could further safeguard prescribed burners from liability concerns. The rule, adopted in 2007, outlines a prescribed burn manager certification program to be administered by the DNR. If a trainee becomes certified, he or she would enjoy more protection under the law if a fire got out of hand. The only problem: the program is an unfunded mandate, and the DNR does not yet offer it.

“The primary reason the certified burn manager program has not been implemented yet is that there has been no funding available to administer this program,” Palmgren said in an email. “While the administrative rules are in place to provide the framework, there is no funding allocated for staff time to review applications, certify burners or create and put on the required course.”

Palmgren said DNR staff are looking into what will be needed to get the program up and running, but funding will be necessary.

“Our desire is to implement the program,” Palmgren said.

A prescribed fire flares up in a fuel-heavy portion of a burn unit at The Highlands, Grand Rapids nature preserve. Image: Land Conservancy of West Michigan

Not having the program snuffs out prescribed fire opportunities for many potential burners, Vander Yacht believes. If independent contractors had the protections afforded by the certification, they would feel more comfortable to execute more prescribed fires, he said.

“I think the opportunities would greatly expand in the state if this certified burn manager program was actually funded and had the backing,” Vander Yacht said.

Such a program might help the state meet the needs for fire on the landscape as well as ensure that those goals are being met safely and intentionally.

“It’s providing a level of training so that they’re as safe as they can be and at the same time making sure that we’re supporting all of those types of small burning efforts,” McGowan-Stinski said. “So then collectively we’re building a fire community and seeing an increase in understanding of why we’re doing prescribed fire and fire effects, and then ideally an increase in fire across the landscape.”

. . .

McGowan-Stinski has one important caveat for putting more fire on the ground: The goal of burning needs to be more than simply making the ground black. Before and after lighting the match on a prescribed fire, it’s crucial to consider and monitor for fire effects, he said. Is the match holder achieving the goals—whether they pertain to fuels reduction, environmental restoration or forestry—that they set out to achieve when they wrote their burn prescription?

Heslinga credits McGowan-Stinski for informing his approach to prescribed fire at the Land Conservancy.

“It should never be the goal of management to do a burn, to make the ground black. That’s not the goal. The goal is to achieve some ecological outcome. The fire is a tool to achieve that outcome,” Heslinga said.

McGowan-Stinski noted that larger agencies will often set a static goal of burning, for example, 600 acres per year.

“Well that’s great if those 600 acres have a logical fire effects need or fuel reduction or whatever. But if you’re pushing just to burn acreage and your goal is ‘Yay, we lit 600 acres up,’ but you don’t really care what the fire effects were, that’s useless. It’s more than useless: you’re putting yourself and your crew and your agency at risk, to do what?” McGowan-Stinski said.

“I have a graphic that I often use: It’s a garbage can, and you take the money that you would have spent on the burns if all your goal is ‘Alright, we need to see 600 acres black,’ and you put that in the garbage can and light it on fire. You then have your smoke and your flame and if you take the ashes and spread it over 600 acres, you have effectively put fire in the form of ashes over 600 acres,” he said. “You’ve had your flame and your smoke and you’ve had the same effect: Nothing.”

Monitoring for effects after a burn can help managers understand if they are meeting their goals.

“The monitoring aspect is something that is overlooked quite a bit. Not that it needs to be this rigorous, scientific thing, but you need to go back and look at the site and see if the burn did what you thought it was going to do, and if not, why not?” Heslinga said.

. . .

Ultimately, Cohen said he hopes his team’s research and outreach will get land managers thinking about how to address increasing fire on Michigan’s native fire-dependent ecosystems.

“The structure of an organization can influence how fire gets applied on the ground,” Cohen said. “The focus initially was more on informing site-level decisions about applying fire to the ecologically most important places across the landscape. But then as we developed the model, we saw that it could have a broader impact in terms of helping inform regional planning and then also helping inform policy making.”

Cohen said he hopes that the fire needs model will get agency staff thinking about how institutional barriers may be contributing to the dearth of fire on the landscape.

“Part of its intention is to inspire discussion,” Cohen said. “The ultimate goal is more fire across the landscape: increase the scale and frequency of fire application and broaden application across seasons and geographies. More fire.”

Disclosure: The author is employed by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

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