November 16, 2007

Controlled burn planned in Thompson Woods

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Artists use glass, tile and stone to create mosaics. Charles M. Ruffner uses fire.

"When fire moves through the landscape, it burns where it's dry, and where it's moist, it doesn't," said Ruffner, an associate professor of forestry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a specialist in fire ecology.

"There's never 100 percent coverage with fire. There will be islands of untouched vegetation and some spots that are intensely burned mixed in with areas that have burned moderately. This creates a mosaic of habitat with greater biodiversity."

Ruffner plans to create his latest mosaic between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday or Tuesday, Nov. 19 or 20, in SIUC's Thompson Woods if the weather cooperates. He and his student crew, the Saluki Fire Dawgs, will, under carefully controlled conditions, burn off roughly a third of the woods, a 14- to 17-acre tract ("depending on whose figures you believe," Ruffner said with a smile) that lies in the heart of the campus.

The Fire Dawgs' first burn there took place in 2001.

"This is the third time we've burned these units," Ruffner said.

"Repeat burning reduces competing vegetation. We want to manage for oak, so our competing vegetation is sugar maple, black cherry and American beech, and we still have some unwanted stems out there.

"Fire also recycles nutrients in the forest. Fire is just decomposition speeded up. It's the opposite of photosynthesis — with fire, carbohydrates are broken down into their constituents."

This year's burn will encompass some five to six acres of the woods' west side.

"The walkways out there parcel it out neatly, like puzzle pieces," Ruffner said. "We use them as our field breaks."

While some parts of the woods are seeing frequent fire action, others will remain permanently untorched.

" We want to have areas that have never been treated so we can show the public what it looks like when you burn and what it looks like when you never burn," Ruffner said.

"We are working to place an interpretive sign by the big rock (behind the Agriculture Building at the point where the path forks) to explain to people what they're looking at."

Though classes won't be in session, folks can still stroll the woods the day of the burn.

"I would avoid recreating in the center, but you can walk through it," Ruffner said wryly.

"It will be a little smoky, but it won't be dangerous."

If extended rains between now and then leave the woods too damp to burn, Ruffner will set up a rain date.

"It will probably be the first Saturday after football season ends — we don't want to smoke out McAndrew Stadium," Ruffner said with a laugh.