Approximately 10 people set out into Hiawatha Forest on Wednesday afternoon to start a series of small fires, with plans to help the native environment.

Employees of Ottawa County Parks; Todd Aschenbach, who teaches at Grand Valley State University; and others participated in a prescribed burn on a 3-acre lot in the West Olive-area forest.

A prescribed, or controlled, burn is used when weeds, trees and shrubs begin to overrun native wildflowers and grasses, and fire helps manage the land.

“Our goal, first and foremost, is to release nutrients in the soil,” said Melanie Manion, natural resources manager for Ottawa County Parks. “Overall, we are doing this to maintain an oak savanna.”

Manion said the team wants native plants to establish in the area. So, dressed in fire gear, hard hats and safety glasses, and carrying packs of water or a can to ignite flames, Manion, her crew and Aschenbach set out into Hiawatha Forest.

Aschenbach is working on a study on the differences between doing a prescribed burn in the spring versus the fall.

Once at the burn site, a few old harvest lots from a pine tree farm, Manion used a small tool to measure the humidity level and wind speed. These factors, along with the temperature, wind direction and if there has been significant rainfall within five days of the burn all make up the prescription for a burn, according to Jessica VanGinhoven, communications specialist for the parks system.

“We often are asked why we would conduct controlled burns. It can seem counterintuitive or even destructive, but these habitats require disturbance to be maintained, otherwise they will over time become forests,” VanGinhoven said. “Once they become forests, the early succession species lose their habitat.”

Early succession species are those that require more open area, instead of forests, including wild turkeys, bluebirds, sandhill cranes and more. VanGinhoven said losing this type of habitat is one of the main reasons why Eastern box turtles are a state threatened species.

“People normally think of fire as destructive, and it doesn’t have to be,” Manion said.

Aschenbach predicts it will take multiple controlled burns to get the desired results over the entire 3 acres of Hiawatha Forest.

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