The big fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 were the first time I remember hearing about wildfires. Having lived in the Midwest all my life, any kind of fire on the landscape was foreign to me. I had never seen one. But I remember seeing pictures of the park after the fire and the aftermath looked devastating.
Yet, just a year later, pictures from Yellowstone revealed that the park was quickly recovering. And, little by little, I remember the story unfolding about the role and value of fire in natural landscapes.
The short version of the story is that because fires have always been a part of the natural order of things many plant communities have come to rely on fires to clear away dead plant matter and make room for new growth. Indeed, some species, and whole plant communities, are fire-dependent and in the absence of fire, they will eventually disappear.
In southern Illinois, a lack of fire in most of our oak forests for almost a hundred years has resulted in a situation where the fire-dependent oaks are no longer regenerating -- which poses a threat to literally hundreds of species of plants and animals that rely on a healthy oak forest.
The good news is that controlled fires, versus wildfires, can be used to help maintain healthy oak forests. And that is what is happening these days around southern Illinois.
Last year, I wrote about one such fire at Giant City State Park in November. It was a 200-acre controlled burn that was planned and directed by Ben Snyder, an IDNR District forester, and attended to by additional IDNR staff, local staff from the Nature Conservancy, and a group of SIU forestry students known as the Fire Dawgs.
The fire included the area around and including the Stone Fort site and nature trail, and photographs that I took of the area during the burn were ominous looking, indeed.
But, I recently walked the Stone Fort trail to see what was happening out there, less than six months after the fire, and what I saw made me feel like I was walking through a "mini-Yellowstone."
As if unphased by the fire, the spring wildflowers had begun to put on their show. Wild Blue Phlox and Spiderwort were starring when I visited. The fuzzy fiddle heads of young fern fronds were also emerging, and there was Jack-in-the-Pulpit in areas the fire had missed. Green clumps of native grasses dotted the forest floor, much to the delight, I'm sure, of the park's deer.
In a few years, young oaks should be noticeable, too, mixed in with the wildflowers and native grasses on the forest floor around the Stone Fort site.
I certainly urge you to go out and see this mini-Yellowstone with your own eyes, knowing that the area is "recovering" nicely and is well on it's way to being a healthy oak forest again.
• Mike Baltz has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.