To restore prairie land on Central Whidbey, local organizations are turning to a tool used for thousands of years by Native Americans — fire.
Thursday afternoon the Whidbey Camano Land Trust and the Pacific Rim Institute oversaw controlled burns at two separate sites, the Admiralty Inlet Natural Area Preserve and at the institute.
Both organizations hoped to use the burns to clear out invasive plants to make way for the native prairie species. The native plants are currently dormant, and shouldn’t be affected by the burn, said Jessica Larson, land steward at the land trust. The trust is especially trying to improve the habitat for the golden paintbrush, a rare plant classified as a threatened species by the federal government.
Before European settlement in the area, Native Americans burned the prairies regularly to keep out encroaching plants.
“The native plants adapted to that,” said Robert Pelant, CEO of the institute.
During the 1850s, the burning stopped and the land started degrading. With the introduction of invasive plants and agricultural grasses the quality of the local ecosystem deteriorated rapidly, Pelant said in a statement.
“Burning is a key tool in bringing back resilience to the ecosystem,” he said.
Controlled burns have been used as a tool to restore native vegetation on Central Whidbey for at least eight years.
Although there is currently a burn ban in place in Island County, the groups secured permits because of the time-sensitive nature of the prescribed burns. Late in the summer is an ideal time to do the burns because the weather is hot and dry and there’s enough plant fuel, according to Larson. The fire has to get hot enough to burn the roots of the invasive plants and with the high moisture content of the area, it takes more heat to do so. She also said the fire can’t be so intense it kills the plants they’re trying to protect.
“You don’t want a crazy hot fire that goes really deep and kills everything,” she said.
The Center for Natural Lands Management and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources managed the burning at both sites. Both groups specialize in this type of controlled burn. The institute coordinated with the land trust to do their burning on the same day so the same crew could do both in one trip to the island, according to Pelant.