Prescribed Burns in Ann Arbor City Parks

Me suited up for a burn Between 1996 and 2002, I regularly worked as a volunteer on a series of prescribed burns in natural areas in various Ann Arbor City Parks. These burns are conducted by the Natural Area Preservation (NAP) Division of the Ann Arbor City Parks and Recreation Department. NAP's work in restoring and preserving natural areas in city parks are funded by a special milage put into place by city voters. The twenty burns done in 1997 covered 200 acres of city parkland. Many organizations burn much larger areas in single burns, but our group is unusual in that most of our burns are in urban areas, which has its own unique challenges.

This page shows a few snapshots of two of the last burns we did in the Spring of 1996. (The only ones I remembered to bring my camera to, and was sufficiently unoccupied to use it.) The photo at right is of me suited up for a burn at South Pond in 1997.

Some Pictures from the 1996 Furstenberg Prairie Burn

Furstenberg Park is directly across Fuller Road from Huron High School, along the banks of the Huron River. Furstenberg is one of the richest natural areas in the city. It includes a variety of ecosystems and has been the target of intensive restoration work, mainly directed at removing invasive species (primarily Buckthorn and Honeysuckle in the woodlands and the Spotted Knapweed in the prairie), both by cutting and burning. We had done several burns in the wooded parts of the park early in the year. The pictures below are of a burn of the small prairie patch there.

Burning is an important part of prairie restoration because fire is an important part of the prairie ecosystem. Burning does little damage to the native dry-season grasses (e.g. Big Bluestem), with their extensive root systems, while non-native cool-season grasses (e.g. Kentucky Bluegrass) are much more vulnerable. Burning also dries out the ground, which is advantageous for our native grasses.

Furstenberg Prairie lies just southwest of Fuller Road, a very busy street. Smoking up Fuller Road would be a serious traffic hazard, so the NAP crew waited for a day with the right wind before doing the burn there. We don't get northeast winds often in Ann Arbor, so by the time weather conditions were right many of the cool-season grasses, which were the target of the burn, had already greened up more than we would have liked. Green grass doesn't burn very well, so this was probably one of our least successful burns of the 1996 year.


There are extensive preparations before each burn. All staff and volunteers are trained, and detailed burn plans are formulated for each site. Burn breaks are cut where needed. On the day of the burn, neighboring property owners and the city and township fire departments are notified. Jobs are assigned to the crew (including igniting, carrying backpack sprayers, monitoring weather conditions, smoke watching, and crowd control and public relations). Equipment is checked and the crew is briefed on the burn plan, including emergency procedures.

Photo 1: Ready to Ignite

The picture at right shows us just starting to ignite. Catriona Mortell is standing in the center of the picture, holding a drip torch. This is a can full of gasoline and diesel oil with a handle on the side and a long tube sticking out the top. You can see the tip of it flaming to the left of Catriona. Watching her is the burn boss, Dave Bornemann. I've got a backpack water tank, but you can't see me because I'm on the wrong side of the camera.

Behind Catriona, parked by the side of Fuller Road, is one of the NAP trucks. This one has a 300 gallon water tank in the back, with a gasoline powered pump and a lot of hose. Someone will be stationed near the truck throughout the burn, watching for smoke on the road, monitoring wind and weather conditions, and answering questions from passers-by. Everyone on the crew has radios.

Photo 2: Starting the Fire Line

Now Catriona is starting to lay down the fire, dripping a line of burning fuel along the edge of the prairie next to the road as she walks backward toward the camera. We want the fire to burn off to the left into the prairie area, which you can see has already greened up quite a bit. Catriona is wearing Nomax fire-resistant overalls, fire gloves, and a hard hat which has attached a plexiglas face shield and a cloth thing that protects your hair and that you breathe through to reduce your smoke inhalation. Everyone on the crew wears the same fashionable get-up.

Many other groups do similar burns with less safety equipment, but NAP operates in public parks, in plain site of hundreds of the people whose votes fund our operations, and we are often burning near their homes. Effectively, all NAP's burns are "demonstration burns." It's almost as important to look professional as it is to be professional.

Photo 3: Extending the Fire Line

Here Catriona is a little further along while Dave is on the radio, getting a smoke report. Or maybe not, since it is pretty obvious that the smoke is blowing away from the road, which is behind the sumac shrubs to the right. Normally I'd be busy using my water tank to put out the right side of the ignited strip, to prevent the fire from getting in toward the road, but there wasn't much fuel under shrubs, so the fire pretty much put itself out before it went anywhere dangerous. This is the usual situation. Fire getting out of control usually isn't an issue, since there are natural burn breaks almost everywhere we burn.

Photo 4: Rounding the Bend

Now Catriona has rounded the corner and is heading back along the other side of the prairie. The smoke you see is blowing back from the strip she initially lit off to the right of this picture. The paved path to her left is a good burn break, so my water tank is even less needed along there. Therefore I'm staying back out of the smoke and continuing to keep an eye on the edge of the field along the road. You can see that this green stuff isn't really burning very well, which is too bad, but the black area in the corner was a big patch of dry grass not long ago.

Photo 5: Ignition Complete

So theoretically, this pretty much finishes the ignition phase, and it's time to stand out of the smoke and just watch things burn. On this burn we had to go back and do a fair amount of reigniting here and there though. There are some flames maybe two feet high there in front of the crowd of Nomax-clad rubberneckers over here. It's unusual for the flames to get much bigger than that.

Notice that the wind has gone and changed on us since the last picture, so the smoke is blowing more toward Fuller Road. This is the real worry with burns - not run-away fire, but smoking up roads and residential areas. However, the wind was blowing more parallel to the road than toward it, and the road climbs much higher in that direction. Our smoke watchers along Fuller reported no significant smoke on the road.

Photo 6: Mop-Up

Finally, it's time for mop-up. This picture is kind of a long shot because I've switched from spraying to doing PR at the roadside. We bring the water truck around and use the hose and the backpack sprayers to put out anything that is still smoldering. We don't leave the site until everything is completely out. In the prairie, this is no big deal, but in the woodland burns this can be the hardest part of the job. Fallen logs and hollow trees can burn for a long time, and in an urban burn everything has to be completely out before we leave the site. Putting those out sometimes requires a lot of work with axes and hoses.

Some Pictures from Other 1996 Burns

Many of the 17 burns done in the Spring of 1996 were in woodland areas like this. This picture was taken in Marshall Park, which is on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, near the intersection of Dixboro Road and Plymouth Road. It's a beautiful area, with lots of nice nature trails, that very few Ann Arborites seem to know about.

In this section of Marshall Park the main objective was to see if burning would be effective in controlling Garlic Mustard, an invasive plant that carpets the forest floor in this area (it did turn out to do some good). I believe that that is Deb Paxton (everyone looks pretty much the same in Nomax) wielding the drip torch here on a wooded slope. Much of the green on the ground is new sprouts of Garlic Mustard. There wasn't much fuel so it was kind of a slow fire that needed lots of coaxing along with rakes and occasional reignition.

Later the same day we did a burn in a drainage area near where Platt Road crosses I-94. This picture does a better job of showing how ignition works in a place with a bit more fuel on the ground. We are looking down a burn break that had been prepared earlier. You can't see it, because it isn't that big a deal - just a strip where some of the dry grasses have been raked aside. The igniter is taking a break off the right side of the picture, having just lit the strip of flame leading down to the bottom of the picture. Following a bit behind the igniter is someone with a backpack sprayer. This is a backpack holding 40 pounds of water, with a hand-pumped spray nozzle attached. Once the burning strip has gotten a foot wide or so, he (or she, I can't tell who that is) uses the sprayer to put out the side along the burn break, allowing the other side to continue to burn. The resulting burned strip establishes a much more secure burn break. This is done all the way around the burn, starting on the downwind side, to ensure that the fire is effectively contained.

For more information about Ann Arbor's Natural Area Preservation program and related volunteer activities see their web page or call the NAP hot-line at (734) 996-3266. There is always a recorded message there telling about planned activities. This page is solely the work of its author (Jan Wolter), and is not in any way an official document of the City of Ann Arbor (in fact, they don't even know it exists).
A few related links (heavily pruned by the passage of time):

Jan Wolter Tue Feb 19 11:42:00 EST 2002