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Controlled burn worries new park's neighbors

Fire could help native species reclaim land

June 20, 2012

Wildlife preservationists want to use fire to clear out invasive plants and bolster habitat on the County Grounds, but the proximity to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center and the freeway pose health and safety risks, some say.

Representatives of Milwaukee County Parks and The Friends of the Monarch Trail proposed a controlled burn on a small section of County Grounds Park - a 55-acre parcel that was donated as part of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's neighboring Innovation Park project - earlier this month during a meeting of medical campus stakeholders.

"It's one of the best tools we have for managing natural areas," said Kevin Haley, Milwaukee County Parks landscape architect. "We might start out in fall with a small controlled burn in a portion of parkland - small scale to show everyone that it can be done safely."

Preservationists wanted to educate campus stakeholders on the science of controlled burns in hopes they could get buy-in from the neighbors. The issue would need permission from city and county officials before any fires could be lit.

Using fire proves much more effective in permanently eradicating problems than mowing or chemical treatments, said Mike Marek, a Milwaukee restoration ecologist with experience in controlled burns.

"Native Americans set fire to the prairie in order to increase their food crops and increase their hunting in the fall and winter," Marek said. "It's really an amazing tool in its efficiency to select out European and Asian weeds from the native plants that grow here naturally."

Burning may be the only way to restore the County Grounds ecosystem and keep from losing some species of animals and plants, Marek added.

"In order to continually maintain this and gain the biodiversity that is required to sustain all the native species that use the site, we're going to have to implement prescribed burn," he said. "It seems critical to me to keep the ecological integrity of our area intact."

If the initial burn proves successful, Marek estimates about 12 acres of land taken in one- to two-acre sections could be burned per year. In addition to the parkland, organizers would like to use fire on woodland to the north, which is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources and will serve as home to the Forestry Exploration Center, and around the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District stormwater basins.

Marek's team would come up with a burn plan using aerial maps and weather forecasts, and explain the species to be controlled. The fire chief would help make the decision on whether the conditions were adequate to conduct a burn, he said.

Haley pointed to the predictability of a controlled burn as a selling point. An accidental fire could break out on the County Grounds at any time requiring immediate response.

Still, there's never certainty when fire is involved, Fire Chief Rob Ugaste said.

"If the smoke starts to blow this direction (toward the hospitals), we can't just shut it off, and you just can't shut off your (air) intakes - and you have sick people here," he said.

He also worries that the wind could blow the smoke toward the freeway, causing traffic hazards.

Ugaste is familiar with controlled burns from his time working in Illinois. He has seen them conducted safely and witnessed positive ecological outcomes. But in Wauwatosa, prescribed burns are a new concept. The city doesn't even allow leaf burning, he said.

The chief backed Marek's credentials but refused to echo the restoration ecologist's guarantees that smoke can be controlled.

"I'm not against this happening, but I can't make promises when I can't control your behavior or fire," Ugaste said.

Without definitive knowledge that smoke and odors would be kept away from infiltrating the hospitals, where many people have respiratory issues, it's unlikely that risk managers would support setting a fire on any nearby property, campus officials said. It also made them uneasy to know that the Fire Department hoses wouldn't be on site.

Wauwatosa firefighters wouldn't monitor the burn because they remain busy with their responsibility to respond to emergency calls, but the department would provide resources if there was a problem, Ugaste said.

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