Invasive grass fuels Michigan fires

When Mike Ashley first saw the flames, he thought a small leaf pile was burning at the nearby landfill.

But within minutes, the fire spread to the driving range at the Great Lakes Golf Center in Auburn Hills, Mich., which Ashley owns.

Phragmites go up in flames near the Great Lakes Golf Center in Auburn Hills, Mich. Photo: Mike Ashley

“It burned a giant “U” around our facility,” Ashley said. “It spread really quickly. We have a lot of brush surrounding our site.”

But this was no typical grass fire. Its energy came mostly from phragmites, an invasive grass that can grow to 20 feet tall.

“I could see phragmites and I could see the fire, and it was the phragmites that was burning,” said Robert Williams, chairman of the Clay Township Phragmites Management Advisory Board.

Williams saw videos of the fire from local news media.

The March 7 fire burned approximately 160 acres in two and a half hours, according to John Burmeister, Auburn Hills fire chief. Burmeister doesn’t know how the fire started, but it ended when it hit I-75, a major highway. It caused no injuries or freeway accidents.

The golf center lost some ornamental trees and the building suffered minor smoke damage, Ashley said.

Another phragmites fire flared up in Green Bay, Wisc., on March 20. Phragmites burn most in the typical wildfire seasons, April, May and July through September, when conditions are dry.

A controlled burn of phragmites near Chuck Miller’s house on Harsens Island, Mich. Photo: Chuck Miller

“I think that as phragmites spreads it’s going to be a growing problem because it’s everywhere and up close to buildings,” said David Borneman, owner of Restoring Nature With Fire. “In terms of [phragmites] fires they’re pretty dangerous because they are so hot and spread so quickly.”

Borneman does controlled burns for local areas and conservation districts.

“Phragmites is extremely flammable, and when it burns, it burns incredibly hot with flames 30 to 40 feet high,” Borneman said.

Borneman said he’s seen phragmites fires burn to about 65 feet tall. He said flames from cattails and other native grasses can get up to 30 feet, but because phragmites grows taller than those grasses, the flames reach higher.

Phragmites plants burn quickly, but not completely, so the leftover embers get blown in the wind and can spread the fire.

“[Phragmites fires] can jump roads and waterways with these blowing embers that are out in the wind,” Borneman said. “Prairie fires and cattail fires don’t do that as much.”

To get rid of phragmites, you have to burn it first, which can be scary but effective.

John Simpson, executive director of the Winous Point Marsh Conservancy, said the conservancy will do a controlled burn on 200 acres this year. They’ve done experimental burns in the past and found them effective at quashing phragmites.

“What we’ve been finding is that the best successes have been in sites where we spray the phragmites with herbicide in August or September, then come back the next spring and do a controlled burn in that site to remove the dead debris and dead thatch,” Simpson said.

A truck drives through the heat of the fire during a controlled burn on Harsens Island. Photo: Chuck Miller

Controlled burns typically kill at least 95% of phragmites, Simpson said, and the plants that re-sprout are easy to manage.

Even controlled phragmites burns can be scary, but can be managed with lots of water and scheduled when conditions are cool and wet.

Chuck Miller witnessed a controlled burn behind his house on Harsens Island, Mich., in 2009.

“It was amazing,” Miller said. “I bet the flames were 40 feet high.”

Miller said phragmites butts up against garages, boat houses and other buildings on the island. If that grass were to go up in flames, so would the structures.

“It’s just like a tinderbox,” Miller said. “When it’s burning in these big thick clumps it looks like an explosion of napalm.”

7 thoughts on “Invasive grass fuels Michigan fires

  1. I am as concerned if not more concerned about the effects of the herbicides used prior to the controlled burns. The product is the same compound as Roundup but it has a surfectant added to make it stick to the plants. What effect is this having on the wildlife and the water from the runoff? Roundup stays in the soil for 10 years. The Govt claims that this is the only product that will kill phragmites.

    I have given a small herd of sheep and goats (6 animals) access to an area of phragmites on my farm. They eat it like candy and will bypass long grass to get to the phragmites shoots. After a month of eating the new shoots as they come up, the phgramites have completely disappeared. Any plant will die if stressed enough because they need the leaves and stems for nutrients. Take those away and the plant starves. There have been no new shoots for the last month. This is a much more environmentally friendly approach than herbicides and fire..and it’s not a 3-year process as the spraying and burning is.

  2. It’s clear that some of you have missed my point. Clearly, there are habitat types which benefit from controlled burns and I do, indeed, see controlled burns as an important tool in restoring native ecosystems. However, appropriate use of fire should have it mimic, at least as nearly as possible, the historic occurrences of fire. I’m sure I have been involved in more burns than most, so I am clearly not anti-burn, but when I see people advocate for burns in small areas on an annual or bi-annual basis, then, yes, I fear it is becoming a bit faddish. Fire was never that frequent historically.

    On top of that, today we are dealing primarily with small, fragmented habitats. The impacts of a fire on a small area are much greater than the impacts of fire within a larger ecosystem. We used to have thousands of acres of prairie in southeast Michigan. Occassional fires would wipe out a lot of insect and other life, however, there was a large reservoir of habitat to allow for re-population of the burned habitat. When we’re dealing with small areas, the impacts to certain populations need to be given greater weight.

    It is precisely because there IS a scientific basis for using fire that we need to be careful about its application. We should not use that as an excuse to think that all fires are good–at all times and to every extent.

    My post was primarily to get people to think–especially those who support controlled burns, as I do. A herpetologist friend of mine shares this concern about controlled burns since he has found dead Eastern Fox Snakes and Lake Erie Watersnakes after controlled burns along Lake Erie. Should we rely on large controlled burns when we know that species in danger of becoming extinct are in the area? I think not.

    As for other critters, from the thousands of moth larvae and spiders to baby rabbits, we should at least consider them in any decision to burn. Sometimes the sacrifice may be worth it, but it should at least be considered. Fire is not benign, and it should not be treated as such. At a minimum, the extent of area burned in one area should be minimized at any particular time. Even a 1/3 area burn in a small area may be too much, especially if it is done repeatedly and frequently.

    So, please, just think when you contemplate doing a burn. There is a lot to consider–and many species will simply not be able to escape a fire. (For instance, there is one area I’m contemplating burning, but I hesitate greatly because of the tremendous population of lightning bugs. Eggs and larvae certainly won’t be able to move out of the way.)

  3. Most prescribed burns are done with the critters in mind. Natural areas managed with fire are usually divided into sections and usually no more than one third is burned in a single year in order to allow area of refuge for the animals to escape to during and following the fire.

  4. I disagree with Harold above; prescribed burns are neither a fad nor without scientific basis. They are used as a tool to manage habitat for all species (not just plants) including the rare insects that you mention. Fire is used to maintain the very specific habitat types that some rare insect and animal species require.

  5. Phragmites are more than a fire hazard. They acidify the water and crowd out native plants, thereby harming our native animal populations. Controlled burns are one tool we need to save what we have, insects, reptiles, amphibians mammals and mollusks are all harmed by this horrid invasive weed. If we don’t control the phragmites there will be no prairie remnants in their niche, either.

    We can’t preserve animals if they don’t have plants that provide food and shelter.

  6. Wow, I never realized phragmites can get as tall as 20 feet. The flames in that top picture look pretty intense.

  7. I’ve witnessed a controlled burn of Phragmites and it is spectacular. Unfortunately, burning does NOT kill Pragmites…although it will kill snakes, turtles, rabbits, insects and other critters caught in the fire’s path. Controlled burns have become very popular, but they’re usually promoted by those who only think about plants. For those concernced about endangered water snakes along Lake Erie, or for entomologists concerned about insect populations in small, remnant prairie ecosytems, burns are not welcomed.

    Controlled burns have become a fad, based more upon the thrill of seeing a fire than upon any scientific basis for dealing with small, fragmented ecosystems. Controlled burns are fun, but they are not benign. People need to realize that they truly do have negative consequences.

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