on the phone with the Palos North fire department in southwestern
Cook County. Is McMahon Woods in your jurisdiction?
After checking the location, the woman quickly confirms
that I have called the right place.
The preparation for a controlled burn begins long before
the day the fire is set. Each site needs a written burn
plan. As volunteer steward, I find phone numbers for an
extensive list of fire, police, and district departments
that need to be informed when a burn is scheduled. The burn
plan includes these phone numbers along with the procedures,
conditions, equipment, and crew needed to carry out the
burn. To prepare this section of the plan, I walk McMahon
Woods with John Raudenbush, restoration forester for the
Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Much of McMahon Woods is now a formidable thicket. But it
was once one of the most open sites in the district. A wave
of non-native viburnum drowned the formerly open oak savanna.
European buckthorn swallowed what was once prairie. Fire
would have kept the invasive brush under control. John and
I make our way into the interior along a brush-choked footpath.
Once we leave the footpath, conditions get worse. We duck
or crawl under the often thorny branches.
Our destination is the most significant natural feature
of the site a specialized wetland called a fen. The
fens alkaline waters seep out of the ground after
making a subterranean journey from the uplands to the north.
When people emerge into the fen, after navigating the thicket,
they often gaze around in relief and declare: I can
breathe again! Nature has a similar reaction. The
thicket has a stifling lack of diversity, while the fen
bubbles with butterflies and wildflowers.
As we make our way through the thicket, John and I discuss
details for conducting a burn here: crew members (8), temperature
(maximum 70° F), relative humidity (at least 25 percent),
wind speed (no more than 20 m.p.h.). One of the most important
factors is wind direction. The nearest roads are to the
west and north. A wind from these directions will ensure
that smoke stays away from traffic. The crew will be equipped
with drip torches to light the fire. Flappers and backpack
pumpers will be used to control the fire. Two-way radios
will keep everyone in communication. A 50-gallon pumper
truck will be stationed along 104th Avenue where it can
wet down the nearby cattails if necessary.
As we stand on the north side of the fen, Johns gaze
crisscrosses the wetlands width of a few hundred feet.
His eyes sweep out along the extended length of the fen
that trails away into the distance to the west. He glances
back at the thicket to the north and east that we passed
through. He glares at the low-grade woods to the south where
a massive marsh once existed until it was devastated by
the construction of the Sag Channel canal. On the
day of the burn well start in the southeast,
John says as his arm sweeps the eastern end of the fen.
One crew will take the north side and the other the
south. As he talks he seems to see phantom crews moving
into position. The south crew always has to stay in
front of the north crew thats a must.
Back in the parking lot, John is soon on his cellular phone.
Some assignments on the districts expanded burn crews
have not been finalized yet. Burn season is almost here.
Time to put plans into action.