GRANTSBURG – A slow southernly breeze, cloudy skies and light rain in the overnight forecast made Sunday a perfect day for the largest-ever controlled burn at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area north of Grantsburg.

The burned area is a continuous, 4.3 square mile area of sedge marshland, grass and brush areas which was set afire near the intersection of Main Dike Road and East Refuge Road.

“We had an eclectic group of workers today,” said area DNR Supervisor Steve Hoffman of the Grantsburg DNR Office. “We had DNR and Forestry Department help from Barnes, Minong, Spooner, Washburn, Prentiss, even a couple of Forestry staff from Madison here on other business who helped with the burn.” Four employees from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department brought equipment and helped. In all, the group employed about 40 trucks and motorized fire apparatus to observe and control the blaze.

Hoffman continued, “We haven’t done a Sunday burn before, but when we get the right conditions of temperature and winds, plus when we have a high-priority burn to do like the big one today, we work together to get it lined up.”

As the fire steadily consumed dry tinder and brush, by mid-afternoon the high plumes of white and gray smoke were visible for miles. By dusk, the flames were dying and the workers gathered to review their effort. Some stayed on through the night as smaller fires burned.

Burning for Habitat

Burnett County has abundant forest land, but Mallard ducks, other migrating waterfowl and grouse need low grass habitat for mating and nesting area and everyday life. About one-third of the 28,000 acres that comprise Crex Meadows are burned in sections in 4-7-year cycles during spring and fall burns to prevent the land from returning to forest.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s big fire, DNR Wildlife Supervisor Steve Hoffman and crew lit small fires to create firebreaks on the perimeter, knowing the flames would die upon reaching the pre-burned area.

Where brush was especially dense, tractors or caterpillars pulled a “rotovator” to chop the brush, turn it underground and leave a wide dirt strip as firebreak.

Area DNR Supervisor Steve Hoffman has been part of the annual burns for about 20 years, acting as “Burn Boss” many times. This time he happily took a lesser role on the fire line.

“We burned about 2,800 acres today and that’s a lot of ground any way you slice it,” Hoffman said. “The burn cycle in any particular area of Crex Meadows runs 4-7 years, depending on how well the burn goes. If vegetation grows really fast in an area, we have to burn it more often. It’s an ongoing management process. We try to get rid of at least 80 percent of the old, top brush vegetation.”

The burn success isn’t immediately measurable. “We have to come back in about 30 days to do an evaluation,” Hoffman said. “Depending on the growing season, we will go out again as necessary in June or July to see how the fire performed and determine the percentage of top kill.”

Creating open habitat

Hoffman refers to the burned areas in biological terms. “Ground nesting birds need Open Successional Barrens Habitat. If you look at habitat in a succession ranging from open grass field to full forest, our goal at Crex is to keep the trees and brush small. A lot of the brush we kill through our prescribed burns is scrub oak, to keep it from growing into trees.

“Providing habitat for Sharp-tailed Grouse and many species of nesting waterfowl are what we are managing for and encouraging at Crex,” Hoffman continued.

“Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse are an upland game bird that live in the brushy, grassy areas. The Sharp-tails do their mating dance in that habitat and raise their young there and spend their whole lives there.”

Hoffman said the Sharp-Tailed Grouse is not endangered but is listed as a “Species of Special Concern.” Their population varies on about a 10-year cycle. The grouse hunting season varies from year to year and place to place, depending on the number of dancing males observed during annual bird counts.

Nesting game waterfowl at Crex, including Mallard ducks and Blue Winged Teal, nest in grassy habitat up to a mile from water. “They don’t nest much in mature forests,” Hoffman said. “They use the same areas as the grouse. They build nests on the ground, so they like dense, grassy vegetation.

“When the ducklings are born, they are almost independent from day one. But the momma duck has to lead them to water. Getting them to water soon after birth gives them insects and aquatic vegetation to feed and grow on. They are safer on the water too.”

Momma may need to lead them up to a mile from the nest to get them to water. “People love to see the momma leading a parade of cute little ducklings to our Crex ponds and wetlands that are perfect for them to grow,” Hoffman said.

“We are managing for the wildlife area for the game species, but many other grassland species and non-game birds benefit from the habitat too,” Hoffman said. During summer seasons, bird watchers can often find more than 100 bird species thriving within Crex Meadows, including eagles, osprey, herons including the Great Blue Heron, cranes, bobolinks, orioles, woodpeckers, buntings, doves, hummingbirds, finches and sparrows.

Sometimes controversial

The DNR manages all 28,000 acres of Crex Meadows, but Hoffman estimates less than half of it is burned. “Everything we do is based on producing wildlife habitat. It seems everything we do is controversial,” Hoffman says with a hearty laugh. “There are people opposed to what we do and people in favor of our work in everything we do.

“Some people object to the burning because they fear we may burn bird nests, or fawns may get caught in the fire. But, fire occurs in nature too. Fawns haven’t dropped much yet at this time of year, and after any early season fire, the nesters rebuild their nests and lay more eggs. That’s part of the basic biology.

“We know that the species we manage would not be here without the regular prescribed burns. With the burn you take some loss one year, so that for the next four, five or six years you can reap the benefits of having the habitat.”