Controlled burn at St. Louis protected prairie will promote new growth

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ST. LOUIS - Smoke could be seen rising over north St. Louis Wednesday, but there wasn’t cause for alarm. This fire was set to promote new life.

In November, we introduced you to the only prairie remnant in the St. Louis area, protected from development within Calvary Cemetery. On Wednesday, that prairie went up in flames. It was a prescribed burn, carefully executed under the watch of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“Prescribed fire is a very valuable tool in managing a lot of different ecosystems, including prairies,” said Dan Zarlenga with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Fire eliminates a lot of invasive species and the blackened earth left behind is very good at absorbing sunlight, bringing warmth and energy to roots down deep in the ground, promoting growth. In fact, most prairie species are fire-dependent.

“Before the land was settled, it burned every three to five years, just on its own from lightning strikes or indigenous people setting fires to green things up in the fall or draw-in game with the fresh green growth,” said Jon Wingo with DJM Ecological Services, who conducted Wednesday’s burn.

A lot of planning goes into these controlled burns to maintain safety.

“We only conduct those controlled burns under just the right conditions,” Zarlenga said. “Where we have the right amount of humidity, not too much and not too little. Where we have just enough wind to lift the smoke off the ground, but not enough wind to make the fire spread.”

The fire department is notified and fire lines, called black lines, are created downwind to stop the spread of the flames

“Once that’s established, we’ll go ahead and light head fires around and let the wind push into where it’s already burned off and it extinguishes itself,” Wingo said.

Nourished by the fire, native plant species will be reborn in the Spring, providing a home for insects and the birds that live off them. The 24-acre site has the largest pollinator diversity in the area, being home to more than 100 species of native Missouri bees.

This is the second time that prescribed fire has been conducted at the Calvary Cemetery prairie. Visitors are welcome to explore the site at any time of the year.

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