Friendly Fire on the Black Oak Savannah

See also Prescribed Burns

Gardening with Fire

It surprises many people to learn that fire is the best gardener possible for the black oak savannah. The indigenous people who first lived here knew this. They were great observers and students of nature and they noticed that after wildfires swept across the land, the plants grew better and attracted more wildlife. The native people learned that by intentionally and strategically setting fires in the springtime every few years, the vegetation and wildlife would flourish. For thousands of years, our black oak savannah depended on fire for health and survival.

The Price of Progress

When European settlers arrived, they built more permanent homes and communities. They designated land for farming, for logging, for business, for development and recreation. This was no longer a place to set or let wildfires burn across the landscape. The land, the people and their structures were protected by stopping all fires that could be stopped.

For more than a hundred years, we prevented the beneficial age-old relationship between fire and savannah. During this time, the landscape suffered the loss of key species and healthy plant communities. New oak trees became scarce, less robust and less resilient.

A Happy Accident

Then a small accidental fire in a corner of High Park revealed what we had almost lost. Long-absent savannah grasses and wildflowers grew out of the blackened earth. Plants that had disappeared or had become scarce in the park showed us that their seeds were still in the soil just waiting for fire to return them to life!

Only 1% of Ontario’s black oak savannah remains. Twenty-six hectares of that are in High Park and cover one third of it. A management plan to restore and preserve this incredibly special ecosystem has included regular prescribed burns since 2000. This is rejuvenating our black oak savannahs. An impressive 26 nationally rare plants now grow and support wildlife in High Park’s black oak savannahs.

How does it Work?

In the early spring, the first grasses and plants to sprout in the black oak savannah are not native to the ecosystem. They actually grow so quickly and thickly that they crowd out the later-sprouting native savannah plants. These early-sprouting plants from distant places have short roots and are not adapted to the savannah or fire. A carefully monitored, quick moving low fire burns away this barrier along with excess leaf litter.

Meanwhile, the extremely long roots of the native savannah plants are not affected by the fire. When the black ash absorbs sunlight, it warms the soil and stimulates the growth of the native plants beneath. Up they come through the enriched soil into the light, ready to attract and support High Park’s wildlife.

By Kathleen Keefe

The Power of Fire
Irene Wilk
Tall Prairie Grasses with Deep Roots
Linda Read
Prescribed Burn: Setting the Fire
Karen Yukich

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Content last modified on October 17, 2016, at 11:15 PM EST