BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — Residents around Gateway Middle School can expect to see some black smoke one day in April.
School officials don’t know what day exactly, but they do know the smoke will be a sign of good things to come for native plants and animals.
“Our native prairie has been here about five years now and we have a bit of a thistle issue. A lot of this Canada thistle has taken over,” said Mike Dick, Gateway’s seventh-grade science teacher and member of Project Prairie. “At some point in April, we have a group coming down from Ann Arbor. They’re burn specialists and their plan is to torch the prairie.”
If done properly, a controlled burn will not affect the native plants, but will keep the invasive ones from returning.
Controlled burns are done by specialists and can only take place during certain conditions. This is why the exact date of the controlled burn is not yet known.
Specialists from David Borneman LLC, an ecological restoration consulting firm that also helped with a Toledo Zoo burn, will notify the school when they believe the proper conditions are met. This means the wind, temperature and humidity have to fall within certain ranges.
“They’re highly trained and permitted to go in and do these types of burns,” said the Toledo Zoo’s curator of education, Mitch Magditch. “They monitor the weather conditions. You have to have certain weather conditions – particularly wind. Then they’ll give us probably a 48-hour notice and come in and then do the controlled burn.”
If those requirements are not met, the burn could quickly become dangerous, burning faster than necessary – or it can be useless, the flames quickly going out before doing what is needed.
On the day in question, residents near Gateway can expect to see several people in full suits, many with suppressant devices and one with a blowtorch, who will be out in the 10,000-square-foot urban prairie.
“The flames are only going to be 5 or 6 inches, mostly,” Dick said. “You might expect 10-foot leaping flames, and that’s just not it. You will see a lot of oily, black smoke, though.”
As the fire burns, invasive species like the thistle will hopefully be driven from the space, and native plants like violets, milkweed and cutgrass will have a chance to flourish in a few months, Dick said.
“What you’re going to see after this burn happens in April is a very different looking prairie in the fall,” Dick said. “I’m looking forward to taking this year’s sixth-graders out, they’re with me next year in seventh, and seeing the differences how the prairie has changed.”
The prairie at Gateway has been used as an outdoor classroom for several years, but it’s not the only school in the area to have one. There are 20 schools in the area that have received or expanded upon their prairies thanks to Project Prairie, which is assisted by the Toledo Zoo.
“Since we start from scratch, we go in and do all sorts of prep work,” Magditch said. “Generally, we’ll go in and do two or three rounds of herbicide spraying in order to get rid of all the competing vegetation because the number one issue that you’re going to run into doing any type of prairie installations is competing vegetation – most of which are non-native.”
It takes time for the prairies to become established, and even then, they require management from the Toledo Zoo to help the students and staff attend to the prairies’ needs. When the prairies are well-established, the roots of native plants can go down as far as 14 feet, which is why a controlled burn is possible.
“It’s a pretty standard prairie management tool. Prairie plants are adapted to burning. Most prairies occurred in the great plains area of the United States. They are well-adapted to fires,” Magditch said. “Their ecology, the deep root systems, they can survive fires, but a lot of the invasives and non-native species like Canada thistle, they are not adapted to fire, so, once you do a controlled burn, it eliminates a lot of that competing vegetation.”
The zoo sent several educators to Gateway on March 22 to discuss the prairie and teach about the controlled burn. The students measured phosphate and nitrogen in the soil and were informed the burn might be able to help with the low levels.
Dick said Project Prairie has received requests from several people in the area wanting to create their own native prairies in their communities. For those who want to get started, there are several upcoming opportunities for native plant sales in the area.
For example, the Lucas County Soil and Water Conservation District’s native plant sale starts on Friday, April 1 at www.lucasswcd.org/nativeplantsale. April is National Native Plant Month.
Several nurseries in the area will also sell native plants. Some that Magditch suggests looking out for are bergamot, purple coneflower, grayhead coneflower, false sunflower, black-eyed Susan and goldenrod.
“Another species I need to mention is swamp milkweed. That’s a really important one,” Magditch said. “That’s a host for the monarch butterfly. These prairies act as little waystations for monarchs, particularly when they’re migrating to Mexico in the fall.”
Maumee residents can take inspiration from the several local native prairies and make their yards a safe spot for species like the monarch and other local animals by filling them with native plants, many of which will be available at plant sales this April.