Pioneer Forest conducted the largest prescribed burn in the organization’s history March 21-23 at Jerktail Mountain near the Current River in Shannon County.
The operation took over a year of planning and was completed in close coordination with the Nature Conservancy and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, according to the National Park Service. In total, over 1,800 acres were blackened as part of a regional glade ecosystem restoration project.
“Pioneer Forest is still focused on timber management,” said Pioneer Forest Manager Jason Green. “Jerktail Mountain is a very unique site though, quality timber is only in small pockets, and its geology makes it an ideal candidate for glade restoration.”
A glade is a habitat defined by shallow top soil, exposed rock and tall grasses with wild flowers interspersed between woodland forests.
Although it may be hard to believe, just 200 years ago much of the pre-European Ozarks of our area was not densely forested as it is today, but instead was made up of woodlands and glades.
This is because the local Native Americans frequently burned much of the Ozarks to enhance the diversity of plants and animals they utilized. Over thousands of years, this regular burning gave the Ozarks the many creatures and plants it’s still famous for, including turkeys, deer, elk, collared lizards, large populations of wild flowers, pine trees and an abundance of oaks.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, one of the first Europeans to explore Dent County, witnessed this environment when he hiked from the Meramec River to the Current River in 1818. In his journal he remarked when crossing over the land that Salem now inhabits that there was not enough wood in the vast expanse of grass to even have a campfire. He referred to these foothills as, “the prairie of little foxes.”
Since Schoolcraft’s journey, the glades, wildflower fields and animals that once dominated the Ozarks have shrunk drastically. Today, only five percent of the glades that once existed still remain, according to research conducted by Paul W. Nelson of the US Forest Service.
With the loss of the glades, some of the native plants and animals are also seeing a decline, including birds like the Prairie Warblers, and wildflowers like the Bush’s skullcap mint, which only lives on glades in the Ozarks, according to research conducted within the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways.
This situation has left some of the local animals and plants which thrive within that ecosystem struggling to survive.
“It’s amazing to see how some creatures adapt to survive,” says Fire Ecologist Dan Drees of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. “The wildflowers that were once plentiful within the glades can still be seen hanging on in the ditches by county roads. But that situation is not ideal for the health of the species.”
With financial support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and National Wild Turkey Federation, a coalition made up of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the Nature Conservancy, and Pioneer Forest have launched an effort to restore glades and woodlands by conducting prescribed burns in targeted areas. In addition to Pioneer Forest’s Jerktail Mountain prescribed burn with the National Park Service, conservation organizations throughout the Ozarks are working together to restore the best remaining glade and woodland habitats.
To a novice, the goal of a prescribed burn can be summed up as replacing the dead leaf litter on the forest floor with native grasses and wildflowers. The burn accomplishes this by opening up more sunlight to the ground and enriching the topsoil with nutrient rich ashes. This increases the forest’s biodiversity by allowing for more plants to grow and more animals to thrive on this food source.
“By restoring the glades we can begin to bring back the wildflowers,” says Drees. “If you have more wild flowers you get more pollinators and other insects, and if you have more insects you help out animals that eat bugs such as turkey poults, quail chicks, and prairie warbler chicks.”
Research conducted in areas where prescribed burns have taken place indicates that grasshoppers were 650 percent more common in burn units than adjoining unburned areas. The native plant species population also increased an average of 100 percent.
Drees also points out that fire is actually an essential part of the Ozarks ecosystem.
“Fire plays an essential role in our ecosystem. The pine trees of the Ozarks, for example, are specifically adapted to withstand wildfires and actually require fire as part of their regeneration cycle. But unlike the California blazes you see on TV, the fire from a prescribed burn stays low to the ground and consumes only the dry twigs and leaves scattered across a forest’s lowest layer, not the trees in their entirety. Much like an annual backyard leaf fire, a periodic prescribed burn in the right place helps nature clear out its refuse while getting ready for a new growing season.”
Green agrees, “fire is not a tool that Pioneer Forest regularly uses as part of our forestry strategy. But by having this prescribed burn at Jerktail Mountain, we can increase the biodiversity of the glades. Jerktail will be briefly blackened, which may make some folks upset, but in the long run it will make the glades much stronger.”
The Salem News was invited to observe the prescribed burn on Jerktail Mountain on Sunday, March 22. The scene on the mountain that day took on the look of one part science class and one part military operation. Among the motley crew were specialists all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota dispatched for the mission by the National Park Service.
Like all prescribed burn operations, the project began with all eyes on the weather. Burns can only be conducted under ideal conditions for safety purposes.
Many variables have to be considered including wind speed and direction, relative humidity, temperature, precipitation, and cloud cover.
Drees was on point for monitoring the weather on March 22. Starting at 9:00 a.m, he could be seen taking continuous readings of the conditions on the mountain with an assortment of unique scientific gadgets. The trouble on that Sunday was the relative humidity on Jerktail. All morning the humidity remained too high to begin work due to an early cover of moisture and clouds. Just after lunch at about 1:00 p.m, however, the clouds broke and the sunlight dropped the reading down to a burnable level.
Once Drees verified the proper weather conditions, it was time for the wildland firefighters to go to work. Wildland firefighters are professionals trained to create controlled fires in wildland areas that need a blackening, while ensuring that the flames are kept inside the fire-management area.
The Burn Boss on Jerktail was Eminence native Scott Bressler. Bressler has worked across the country for the National Park System, from Yosemite to Alaska, but he still considers the Ozarks the most beautiful place he’s ever been.
“There’s no place else I’ve been where you can just sit and listen to a dog give chase,” Bressler said as he admired the surrounding pines while the sound of distant barking filled the silence before beginning the fire. “I love the sound of dogs scrounging around. It sounds like that one has a coyote cornered,” he says with a smile and quick nod of the head.
After Bressler briefed his crews on their deployments for the day, the wildland firefighters climbed into their rugged all-terrain vehicles and began caravanning down the dirt roads of Shannon County to their battle stations.
The Salem News was embedded with the interior fire line team as they hiked northwest across Jerktail Mountain. This crew had the important task of not only blackening their section of the forest but also monitoring the eastern fire line to ensure the flames never spread beyond their prescribed area. A fire line is the boundary which is cleared of all fuels and across which fire is not allowed to cross.
The work was divided into two groups, with one taking on the ignition duties while the other was tasked with ensuring the fire did not jump the fire line.
The ignition group’s weapon of choice were drip torches. Drip torches look like gas cans with a silly straw on top which drips fire. With these, the crew members spread the flames across the ground in an elegant orange ribbon which slowly moves across the landscape.
The flames moved incredibly low and slow to the ground. In fact, the wildland firefighters were witnessed treading over the flames repeatedly with ease. According to Bressler, the objective on this portion of the burn unit was to reduce the amount of leaf litter and logging debris created by a recent timber harvest on the Pioneer Forest portion of the unit. Consequently, the firefighters were burning with conditions that created low to moderate intensity fire.
At the head of the burn crew’s progress was one of the burn’s most beautiful results. A phalanx of butterflies amassed in the branches just beyond the fire line, as if watching the spectacle like it was a firework’s show.
The fire suppression crew trailed behind the drip torchers armed with rakes and leaf blowers. Throughout the day they jumped into action to snuff out flames by either spreading water, blowing air or raking leaves away to deny fuel to any would be blaze.
“Burns are one of my favorite aspects of the job,” says Terrestrial Ecologist Kim Houf of the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways.
Despite her cheery demeanor, Houf spent most of Sunday in a cloud of smoke as she trailed behind the fire crews in her water-tank equipped fire suppression buggy.
“My job is to patrol the line looking for anything and everything that could be a potential hazard,” Houf said. “Basically, I make sure nothing crosses the fire line, and that the fire stays over there where it is supposed to be.”
As Houf drove away on the trail toward the burn teams, the butterflies could be seen reentering the forest behind her, as if cheering on the wild flowers that would soon begin sprouting from the burn’s blackness.
The only big flames that Sunday came when the wildland firefighters ignited jackpots, otherwise known as brush piles made up from the slash left over from timber harvesting. Slash is the industry term for tree tops and branches cut away from trees after they are cut down.
“It’s important that we regularly burn the slash under supervision between every two to three years,” says Bressler. “If it is allowed to build up, it could fuel a wildfire that would get out of control in a hurry and do a lot of unplanned damage before we could respond.”
When the jackpots were lit up, all the firefighters in the area responded to the scene. The look was that of a bonfire guarded by broad shoulders and guarded eyes. The slash burned hot for a few minutes, but like all flames, the fuel was soon gone and all that was left was a heap of fertile ashes. Afterwards the firefighters trounced through the area to stomp out any embers left over from the blaze.
After this finale, the wildland firefighters took a well-deserved break in one of the deep cool valleys of Jerktail Mountain. Many had been on scene for nearly 12 hours on that Sunday, as they were the day before, and would be the next day.
By evening, the sunset on Jerktail Mountain set through an orange and purple haze of smoke and mist. In the coming months, flowers will start growing from the ashes of the burn’s fires. From there, the glades of the Ozarks’ ancient past will soon see their return, and visitors to Jerktail Mountain and the other restored glades will be able to glimpse many of the plants and animals that make this region so unique.