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Posted 4/26/2018

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District, conducted a prescribed burn at the McAlpine Locks and Dam, Louisville, Kentucky, April 5, 2018, as a tool to recreate the natural role of fire in the environment. 

Grassy areas on the property are being developed into a more natural environment. Many plant communities, such as native meadows, are dependent on fire within the environment to set vegetation back to an earlier condition.  Some plant communities are dependent on this occasional disturbance to maintain themselves.  

For example, in a grassland area, trees and shrubs will encroach the area over time.  A hot fire burning through the area will kill back the woody vegetation and release the grasses to flourish until that encroachment occurs again. 

“This is why we look at a two to four-year cycle for burning grasslands and meadows,” said Keith Chasteen, USACE Louisville District natural resources management specialist.

Within these grassland and meadow communities, many of the plants will not reseed until after some sort of disturbance to the site occurs — such as fire.  Once sunlight hits the soil, seeds in the soil will sprout where they would not when shaded.

Many fire-adapted plants immediately begin to sprout from existing root systems following a burn, rejuvenating the older plants with new growth.

Prior to conducting a prescribed burn, a site specific burn plan is created and approved.  This plan identifies the objectives of the burn, the area to be treated and the conditions for conducting the burn. The plan includes the needed personnel and equipment, contingency resources in the event of an escaped fire and the contacts that must be made prior to the burn. The fire department and neighbors are alerted to provide for a safe execution to achieve the objectives of the burn.

Prior to putting fire onto the ground, participating personnel must be properly trained; personal protective equipment must be purchased; and tools, equipment and required permits must be obtained.

“The entire process takes a lot of planning to successfully complete it,” said Chasteen.

Fire is an ideal tool to use when treating on a landscape basis, especially for the management of pollinator habitats that the Corps continues to create at its projects.  It creates rapid change to the vegetation which provides for rapid regrowth and benefit to the environment.

The area recently burned has been managed as a meadow community for the past few years for the benefit of pollinator insects.  Many district employees and their families helped to plant pollinator plants along this hillside during the first Pollinator Day at McAlpine in 2016.  Since that time, there has been some additional planting on the site, but there still exist many non-native cool season grasses and other plants.  

“It was determined that prescribed burning would help to favor the warm season native species and set the cool season plants back a bit so that the warm season plants can better compete on the site.  This is an alternative to the expensive spot spraying of herbicides,” said Chasteen. “The burn went very well. We started with a test burn once we went into prescription — proper humidity levels, appropriate wind direction.  The test burn went well so the burning continued.” 

At one point, the winds shifted to more out of the northeast, which was not conducive to the goal due to fear of putting smoke onto I-64. At that point, ignitions were stopped and the weather was rechecked.  Indications were then that the winds would come back around within the hour.  After about 45 minutes, the winds did change back to a favorable direction, so ignition began again and the burn was quickly completed.

“It was a team effort with the McAlpine and Taylorsville Lake staff’s ambition and Mr. Chasteen’s expertise on the matter,” said Dewey Takacy, McAlpine lockmaster. “All involved thought it was a great experience and we all walked away with a different perspective on prescribed burns and their application—a  feeling of a team accomplishment and a sense of environmental stewardship. Lots of people have thoughts and ideas on making a difference while McAlpine’s actions are making a difference.” 

The team is referred to as the McAlpine Wildland Fire Burn Team comprised of members from the district operations division. Those who conducted the burn were Keith Chasteen, Evan McKinney, Mark Norton, Josh Lesch and Dewey Takacy. Support to the burn team included Henry Davis, Patrick Casto and Clifton Kilpatrick.