fire in a field
A prescribed burn was set at Riverside Park, Palmer Park, and Rouge Park on Thursday, May 11, 2023, to help control invasive species, promote the growth of native plants, and reduce emissions from lawn mowing. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

Thick clouds of black and white smoke billowed out from blazes set across a section of Rouge Park Thursday by the City of Detroit. 

More than 16 acres of Riverside Park, Palmer Park, and Rouge Park were set on fire as a land management technique called “prescribed burning” which Indigenous peoples have used for thousands of years. 

“Prescribed burns are really just an important part of maintaining these types of natural landscapes,” Jeff Klein, deputy chief of landscape architecture for the city’s General Services Department, told BridgeDetroit during a burn in Rouge Park. 

Controlled burning helps kill off invasive species, aids fire-dependent species to grow and can reduce the need for gas-powered mowers to maintain the area, which produces pollution. 

Indigenous fire practices used to be widespread but were mostly destroyed during colonization. For a century, the United States government outlawed intentional burning in California. In the early 1900s federal officials created a policy to put out all forest fires. But the prohibition laws backfired – when wildfires did happen, and still do, they’re often much worse than if the area had been allowed to burn as is natural, and is necessary to some ecosystems. Prohibiting burns also reduces the positive growth of native species that require fire to grow such as giant sequoias out west, and rare prairie grass in Michigan. 

person walking in front of field
A team of trained specialists set fire to 14 acres of Rouge Park Thursday May 11, 2023. They wear a backpack of water and soap to spray on the ground and control the fire. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

But now, states across the country are recognizing the value of the practice, and returning to it. 

“Contemporary prescribed burning is directly adapted from the cultural practice Native Americans performed seasonally as a part of their land management strategy,” a community advisory from the City of Detroit notes. 

Rouge Park was the largest burn of the day with 14 acres of prairie and woods set on fire. 

“This burn is going a little better than the last one – there’s a little more fuel so it’s burning a lot, seems to be burning a lot nicer, and more effectively,” Klein said. Five acres of Rouge Park was set on fire last year as well to help the park’s rare prairie habitat. 

The burn itself is led by David Borneman, an ecological restoration contractor that has more than three decades of experience leading prescribed burns. 

The burns were originally scheduled for last month but were postponed due to weather. 

A good burn day is one that isn’t too windy and that has good air quality, so as not to exacerbate air quality issues in the city, Klein said. For that reason Klein said the burns are scheduled last minute, depending on the weather. The city may do another burn in the fall, but it is dependent on weather conditions. 

“This helps us reduce our maintenance,” Klein said referring to the burns, and it means less harmful emissions to the air from gas-powered lawn mowers, he said. 

“Once a year lets off much less emissions than what you would see with a lawn mower over and over again,” said Klein. “Mowing unfortunately doesn’t give the same results that burning does so it’s just a great tool.” 

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Prescribed burns can do so much to make parks & preserves beautiful and full of healthy, diverse life. Bravo for everyone doing this vital work!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *