Rising from the ashes

July 19, 2019

Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve’s annual prescribed burns keep keystone ecosystems and research areas thriving.

Prescribed burning at Cedar Creek

Troy Mielke and Kally Worm of Cedar Creek lead a prescribed burn during Spring 2019.

On sunny summer mornings, life at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve appears on full display from the chirps of sparrows hiding on the branches of towering oaks on the ecological field station’s savanna to pops of purple from coneflowers rising amidst prairie grass. But just months prior, some of the same spots were charred and black. 

Each spring, Cedar Creek’s fire team conducts prescribed burns at locations around the station as part of a long-term experiment to better understand the role of fire in maintaining prairie and oak savannas. 

“Around 15 years ago, Dr. Dave Tilman, Dr. Clarence Lehman and I realized that our prairies were being encroached by woody vegetation and we had areas of previous oak savanna that were overgrown,” says Troy Mielke, research coordinator and fire boss at Cedar Creek. “In order to maintain these ecosystem types for future research and protection we realized we had to start burning these areas.”

Building off already existing prescribed burns at Cedar Creek dating back to the 1960s, the researchers and staff realized expanding their efforts to new regions of the field station may just work to keep these ecosystems in tact. 

Today, the team at Cedar Creek burns more than 900 acres each spring, setting fire to prairies, oak savanna and long-term research plots to see the impact fire has on plant and animal life. While the fires and remaining soot may look bleak, the ecosystems come back stronger as a result.

The positive effects of the burn are visible within days in some cases with green plant shoots beginning to rise from the soil as neon-green specks across a span of black ash. This rebirth of plant life offers researchers a chance to better understand how to preserve and maintain the prairies and forests that make up the field station and the state.

“Cedar Creek prides itself with conserving, protecting, and studying different types of ecosystems that represent Minnesota,” says Mielke. “The fire helps maintain the ecosystems of prairie and oak savanna in which are the outdoor labs in which research is done.”

In addition to evaluating what impact fire has on these ecosystems traditionally seen throughout the southern part of the state, the prescribed burns also offer a clean slate each spring to the biodiversity plots and experiments that researchers use to study the impact of ecosystem diversity and climate change on our environment. This process of life and death, burning and regrowth is not only essential to our understanding of these ecosystems but key to the success of research at Cedar Creek. 

“The prescribed burning program here at Cedar Creek is a very unique and special,” Mielke says. “Every staff member helps and plays a role in it and it couldn't be done without the dedication everyone puts into it.” – Lance Janssen