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Spring prairie burns: why they're important and when to do them

The changing of the season and warmer weather means that both your prairie plants and their weedy competitors are about to emerge. Stay ahead of weeds this year by scheduling a prescribed burn for your restored prairie landscape.

Prairie burnings are best done in the spring during the month of May. Burnings can be done as early as May 1st or as late as the first week in June depending on weather conditions and how established your prairie currently is. If you have any questions about whether or not your prairie is ready for a burn, or the best maintenance strategy for it this year, give us a call! The Scott SWCD provides free technical assistance to all residents.

To keep newly restored native prairie healthy, functioning, and beautiful, burning your prairie is recommended every 3-5 years. Spring is the perfect time to schedule a prescribed burn!

Why burning is important

Periodically burning native prairie habitat is vital to maintaining its health and functionality. Prairie grasses and flowers are built differently than turf grass, weeds, or invasive species. Prairie plants are like the icebergs of the plant world: we can see part of them on the surface, but their real scope can only be seen below ground.

While traditional turf grass has roots that stretch around 2 inches deep, the roots of native prairie plants can dig up to 15 feet! These roots not only hold the plant and soil in place, but they allow the plant to prosper through above-ground disturbances like fires.

Prairie plant’s ability to survive periodic fires is vital because in the early spring when all types of plants are emerging from a long winter, weeds and invasive species can often grow quicker and can out-compete prairie plants over time. This leads to the native grasses and flowers competing with weeds and other unsightly plants for nutrients, light, and space. By burning the above-ground vegetation in early spring, weeds and other annual plants are set back to give room for the hardy, preferred prairie plants below.

In addition to the direct benefits to the plants inhabiting prairies, prescribed burns also restore nutrients to the soil and prevent uncontrolled burns from happening due to excessive dry plant matter.

How to safely burn a prairie

Disclaimer: Never start a burn by yourself. An uncontrolled fire is extremely dangerous and can spread quickly.

Safety is the top priority during any scheduled prairie burn. And adequate safety--including burning permits and a detailed burn plan--starts with proper preparation and waiting for the right conditions.

Set your land up for success before adding any flames. Mark off the area to be burned using an aerial or photo map, and make note of potential obstacles like fences, gates, powerlines, property lines, etc. Make note of areas that could slow or hasten a fire's movement such as windbreaks, slopes, woods, etc.

Be sure to walk the area of the burn before your burn day to identify area or habitats that should not be burned such as:

  • Grasses in young conifer plantings

  • Dump piles (areas of discarded waste, tires, plastics, chemicals, etc.)

  • Power poles

  • Utility boxes

  • Fuel tanks

  • Poison Ivy patches

Developing firebreaks is another important aspect of site preparation. Firebreaks are items or areas on a landscape that serve to contain fire within a burn area. Examples include things like ponds, paved roads, plowed fields, but firebreaks can also be built by mowing or plowing an area of existing vegetation. Consult with your fire crew for the best methods to set up firebreaks on your property.

The weather must be taken into consideration for burns. Wind must be under 12-15mph, humidity must be greater than 25%, and temperatures should be less than 80ºF. Soil moisture can determine the speed and power of a fire as well. It's important for the soil to be slightly moist to help keep a fire contained. Prescribed burns are only targeting above ground vegetation, so wet soil will not ruin a burn.

For full guidance on prairie burning, reference "The Benefits of Prescribed Burning on Private Land"

There are many resources Scott County residents can go to for help with a prescribed burn:

Additionally, the Scott SWCD offers financial assistance for prescribed burns. Send us a message to ask about your prairie today!

Burning not possible?

If burning your prairie is not possible this year, a mowing can substitute! In order to be effective, mowings must simulate a prairie burn as closely as possible. To achieve this, prairies must be cut down to just 2", and clippings removed by raking or baling. Mowings, like burns, are best done in early spring.

We're here to help!

Trained SWCD staff can take a look at your prairie's current conditions and fuel load to determine if its eligible for a prescribed burn this year. Financial assistance may also be available. Contact us in March or early April for assistance with a prescribed burn!


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