Report on SW Bike Path Spring Prairie Burn Season

On the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, small prairie plantings adorn the edges of the SW Bike Path  like a floral necklace.  In the summer, prairie grasses and flowers  grace the neighborhoods and  lift the spirits of commuters and recreational users who bike, walk, or run the path.  In the fall, the prairies turn a brilliant autumnal hue, and the winter stalks feed the birds.

Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Prairie

But every spring, on one or two peaceful evenings–for only a few hours–the pungent smell of prairie fire smoke greets the neighborhood and signals the annual renewal of these re-created prairie patches.

Prescribed management burn of the Dudgeon-Monroe Prairie. Here, the burn has just begun with a 'back burn' as the members of the neighborhood burn crew stand watch. Photo by Stephen B. Glass.

These small prairie jewels are planned, managed, planted, weeded, and even burned by groups (or rather teams) of engaged, civic-minded neighbors, just like those one finds doing good works in communities across the country.

The public prairies along the SW Bike Path (like the Odana Prairie, the Glenway Prairie, and the Westmorland Prairie) are managed by people who have the desire to return of bit of native Wisconsin to forgotten and largely uncared for public spaces. These are our friends and neighbors with the time and inclination to get their hands dirty turning the soil, pulling weeds, and collecting and sowing seed.

Prescribed burns, like this one at Odana Road are conducted by regular citizens, under a permit issued by the City of Madison Fire Department. Permit conditions, in part, require that the burns start after 6pm to avoid conflicting with the large number of commuters that use the path. Photo by Stephen B. Glass.

What we are talking about is ecological restoration of public spaces.  The citizen restorationists who tend these prairie plantings are, in fact, engaged in the serious and risky business of intentionally setting fire to grasslands in an urban area–not a task for the faint of heart, or the un-organized person.

Conducting a test fire at the Odana Road Prairie, to check weather conditions, and smoke behavior before actual ignition of the burn unit. Photo by Stephen B. Glass.

The neighborhood burn crews are also engaged in a fun and satisfying exercise but to make sure that their work is done safely, they go to great cost to buy professional burn equipment such as drip torches and back pack water pump sprayers, and some even attend classes to receive burn training and certification.

Westmorland Neighborhood Prairie

The evening after the Odana Prairie burn, the Westmorland and DMNA  burn crews assembled at the Westmorland prairie ravine for a management burn of this developing prairie planting.   In addition, groups of friends and neighbors and passers-by gathered just to watch and soak up the excitement of a prairie fire.  The burns last week in fact turned out to be a great community reinforcing the fact the SouthWest Bike Path is one of the best public spaces on the west side of Madison.

The "path squad" of the Westmorland burn crew tending flames at the top of the prairie ravine. Photo by Sandy Stark.

The Glenway Prairie

This was the last burn event of the evening.

The last burn of the evening was the Glenway Prairie. Here, the burn crew is torching a small path of reed canary grass. Photo by Sandy Stark.

 The burn was ignited just as dark settled and provided a dramatic end (as shown in the photo below) to a fun, exciting, and satisfying community-building restoration project.

It was not as big and bad as it looks but plenty exciting enough. Photo by Sandy Stark


When all the flames and smoke were out the burn crew adjourned to the Village Bar for celebration and a post-burn de-briefing.  Ale’s well that ends well!

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Community-based restoration, Ecological restoration, Fire prescription, Lake Wingra, Neighborhood restoration projects, Prescribed fire and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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