The two sides of prairie wildfires
Are all wildfires the same?
The answer is no. While wildfires can be an important part of a healthy grassland ecosystem, fires are becoming increasingly destructive, and many do not benefit our ecosystems. Human impact has caused fires to increase in frequency and severity.
Wildfire season continues to lengthen each year due to these factors:
- Rise in global temperatures due to increased carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases
- Hotter, drier climates reduce snow pack and moisture levels in soil and vegetation
- Prevalence of invasive plant species that do not respond to fire the same as native plants
- Increased population density
- Increased developments in close proximity
What role do fires play in our ecosystem?
While it is important to prevent unnecessary and human caused fires, long term fire suppression can lead to more intense, uncontrollable fires. By utilizing controlled burn techniques with professional wildland firefighters and natural resource professionals, we can fight fire with fire to prevent catastrophic events. (Photo to the right is a controlled burn at the Indian Peaks Golf Course) Fires enrich soil, improve native vegetation density, limit growth of invasive species and prevent fire conditions by eliminating brush.
The prairie ecosystem is adapted to regularly occurring fires, and many grassland plant species in Colorado depend on regular burning to reproduce effectively. As the most endangered biome in the U.S., our grasslands depend on fires to support the diverse plants and wildlife that reside within them. Suppressing wildfires leads to a decline in ecosystem health and an increase in the risk of more catastrophic fires.
Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains have used burning practices for thousands of years to cultivate and foster biodiversity. We continue to manage the land similarly, using prescribed (controlled) fires that stimulate plant growth, enrich wildlife habitat, and prevent the spread of larger, destructive fires.
What is Lafayette doing to protect the community and our Open Spaces from wildfires?
- Actively developing a protocol for maintaining defensible spaces in City-owned, designated Open Spaces.
- Creating fire breaks in varying Open Spaces by mowing strategically
- Methodically planting fire-resistant species to form small wind and fire breaks
- Removing hazardous fuels that lower conservation value of Open Spaces and worsen fire conditions, specifically non-native brush such as Kochia, Canada Thistle patches, and Diffuse Knapweed
- Treating Open Spaces and ditches with prescribed fire with a focus on both fire safety and ecosystem health
- Implementing phytoremediation techniques to protect riparian corridors and water quality
- Enhancing Pre-Incident Plans for emergency responders to access Open Spaces and parks
- Continuing to cultivate diverse landscapes that benefit the greater ecosystem, rather than mowing and tilling Open Spaces
The ecological consequences of mowing Open Spaces
While our grasslands may look like a monoculture, they are filled with diverse, native grasses, shrubs and wildflowers that make-up a balanced ecosystem. Wildlife depend on native plants for nutrition, shelter, and hydration. Many wildlife species are dependent on plants that only grow in Front Range grasslands, such as native bees who rely on specific wildflowers to get amino acids or Western Meadowlarks that only nest in the shelter of tall grass.
Plant and wildlife biodiversity that exists in urban Open Spaces affects the bigger picture of human health and well-being, serving as a filter for cleaner air and water ways, enhancing soil health, improving food production and, sustaining the economy and much more. Natural landscapes have not evolved to be mowed, and doing so long term will disrupt the delicate balance of a healthy ecosystem. Maintaining diverse, native vegetation and wildlife is critical to the health of urban ecosystems, which is why Lafayette Open Space does not mow on a large scale. Per the recommendation of the Lafayette Fire Department, we plan to increase the existing three-foot mowed buffer on each side of our trails to four feet. This will allow for better access for our emergency responders, and could potentially limit the spread of wildfire since the combined mowed buffer and trail will serve as a fire break.
- While mass mowing our Open Spaces may seem like a method to mitigate wildfires, the effects would be devastating and would ultimately lead to increased fire risk.
- A fully mowed landscape stresses vegetation, which leads to the lack of the diversity to sustain a healthy biome. Fewer plants and root systems leads to hotter soil temperatures, drier conditions, decreased soil stability, and lowered tolerance to drought events, furthering fuel for fires.
- Keeping native vegetation mowed long term also encourages the growth of non-native plant species, many of which are not fire tolerant and can serve as fuel during a fire event.
- Erosion and increased storm water run-off are a result of de-stabilized soil, caused by lack of supporting plant root structures.
- Unstable soil conditions lead to increased post-fire pollutant run-off into our streams, water ways and drainages.
How to prepare for wildfires
Sign up for Emergency Alerts
Register your emails, landlines, and/or cell phones to receive emergency notifications from the Boulder County Emergency Alert System. www.boco911alert.com
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has created a website of wildfire resources for residents: www.ready.gov/wildfires
Emergency supply kit
The American Red Cross recommends every family have an emergency supply kit assembled long before a wildfire or other emergency occurs.
Creating a “defensible space” around your home is an effective step to take to protect you and your home from wildfire.