Oakland Township plans prescribed burns in local parks

Residents invited to join Volunteer Fire Crew training Feb. 20

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published February 3, 2021


It may seem like Oakland Township officials are playing with fire this spring, but according to township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, the upcoming park blazes are quite intentional. 

To help restore balance to the township’s natural areas, the township has been regularly burning its parklands since 2002. Those first burns, according to VanderWeide, were in prairie remnants on parks or trailway property along the Paint Creek Trail.

“A lot of our plant communities developed with fire, to the extent that a lot of them are fire dependent, so if we don’t burn regularly, we are actually going to lose that plant community and a lot of the special plants and animals that go along with it. That includes a lot of the pollinators that have been declining quite drastically in the last couple of decades,” VanderWeide explained.

Historically, the natural areas of southeast Michigan — including those in Oakland Township — caught fire regularly, causing its prairies, oak savannas, oak woodlands and even some wetlands to not only adapt to fire, but to actually require it for their continued existence.

Prescribed fires — also known as prescribed burns or controlled burns — are typically conducted by a trained team under specified weather conditions in order to restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire. 

Locally, VanderWeide said, the conditions are right for burning between late February or March through early May, when the amount of smoke produced is minimized. 

“Occasionally, you get the right weather during the summer, but it’s usually mostly in the spring and a little bit in the fall,” he said.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, the right fire at the right place and time can be deeply beneficial to the ecosystem. It reduces hazardous fuels; protects human communities from extreme fires; minimizes the spread of pest insects and disease; removes unwanted species that threaten species native to an ecosystem; provides forage for game; improves habitat for threatened and endangered species; recycles nutrients back to the soil; and promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants.

The Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission will conduct this year’s prescribed burns — which are conducted by a trained fire crew, with permission from the Fire Department — between late February and mid-May at Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Cranberry Lake Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Lost Lake Nature Park, Watershed Ridge Park, and natural areas along the Paint Creek Trail. 

Township officials are looking for community volunteers to assist in the process. 

“We have a volunteer fire group where we do training for controlled burns — burning of different fields to get rid of invasives,” said Daniel Simon, the vice chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission. “We normally do several burns a year in the spring, before the reptiles come out of their hibernation, and in late fall, after they go back into hibernation.” 

Simon said the process is interesting. 

“If you haven’t been to a burn it’s really something to see. One of the biggest burns was at Bear Creek a couple of years ago, and we burned 24 acres. It was pretty exciting,” he said.

Those who are interested in participating in this year’s prescribed burns are invited to a virtual Volunteer Fire Crew Training 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20. The training will explain the reasons for using prescribed fire, preparations for conducting a fire, the necessary tools, the roles of each burn crew member, and ignition patterns. New crew members are required to attend, and past volunteers are encouraged to attend as a refresher. Registration is required to attend and can be done at oaklandtownship.recdesk.com.

VanderWeide sees prescribed burns as an important educational opportunity. 

“One of the big reasons I like to get volunteers involved in the burn is so they get involved in the habitat restoration on the land. They can see how it’s done, feel involved and take ownership in the process,” he said.

For more information about prescribed burns, visit oaklandnaturalareas.com/prescribed-fire.

Call Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at (586) 498-1060.