If you thought you saw parts of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on fire the past two weeks, your eyes did not deceive you.
The ongoing prairie restoration effort on 3,000 acres of the 20,000-acre preserve includes prescribed burns at various times of the year, although grass fires in December are an unusual sight.
But as long as there is no snow on the ground, December can be a good month for burning, too.
“It’s technically still fall,” Midewin horticulturalist Michelle Pearion said.
One burn scheduled last week at the prairie preserve outside Wilmington was called off because of light snowfall. But the burn continued the next day.
“There are certain conditions that we have to have, because sometimes the fire won’t carry in a dormant season like this,” Pearion said.
The December fires have been patchy, Pearion said, but useful in burning off thatch that can inhibit the growth of native prairie plants.
December fires are particularly helpful in promoting the growth of forbs, broadleaf flowering plants that add to the mix of the prairie, Pearion said. Fires at other times of the year are useful for other plants and grasses.
Midewin restoration started in 1996 with volunteers joining staff to enhance areas with more than 275 native Illinois prairie plants and rooting out invasive species that developed when the land was used for farms and later for the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.
Techniques include judicious use of herbicides, field mowing, hand-pulling of invasive plants, brush removal and prescribed fire.
“Burning has been done here almost since the inception of the grassland,” said Joe Parr, assistant fire management officer at Midewin. “They are done every year. Different units are targeted. It’s on a rotation.”
Although the prescribed fires won’t continue through the winter, Midewin is a year-round facility.
“We are open every day of the year,” said Veronica Hinke, public affairs officer. “Our trails are open from4 a.m. to 10 p.m. We have 30 miles of trails.”
A nine-part Midewin Winter Lecture Series starts Jan. 9 with a presentation about the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area and continues with a variety of topics, including prairie wildlife, archaeological excavations and local history.
The Midewin Welcome Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the winter months.