BERRIEN CENTER — A proposed controlled burn for a section of wetlands prairie owned by Berrien County received a cool reception from Berrien Township trustees Tuesday.
A presentation was made by Love Creek Park naturalists Pat Underwood and Derek Pelc, and Nate Simons, executive director of Blue Heron Ministries, which has been hired to manage the fire recommended for an area called Indian Bowl. The area is near Deans Hill and Hochberger roads.
Pelc explained that the fire would clear out dead grasses and undergrowth, to make room for native plant species, which would provide a habitat for rare and endangered animals and insects.
A controlled burn would help prevent an uncontrolled wildfire in the future, Pelc said. The burn, if it goes forward, would likely take place next spring.
Pelc said they want to respond to the concerns of township residents.
"We want to be good neighbors as well as good stewards," Pelc said.
Berrien County acquired 94 acres of Indian Bowl in 1995 from the Nature Conservancy, which obtained the land from the Lyngby family, and it is part of Love Creek Park. Berrien Township passed a resolution that year stating the need to preserve the property.
Simons said his company, based in Angola, Ind., does dozens of such fires every year, and has conducted fires in Chikaming Township for the last four years.
The fire would be started downwind and along the edge of the boundary of the county's property, creating a fire break, Simon said. Another fire would then be set near the river, that would move toward the break and extinguish itself when it reached the already scorched area.
They would have eight crew members at the site, which is more than they would usually assign, Simon said. Those crew members would carry water-filled backpacks to control hot spots. Creeks and ditches along the property would act as natural fire breaks, he added.
Conducting the burn would require a permit from the Berrien Township fire chief, but the township firefighters would not need to be at the site. The sheriff's department and emergency dispatch would be alerted, according to Simon.
At the meeting, Fire Chief Norm Carl called the proposal "questionable," and said there are three houses near the property boundary.
Trustee Bryan Bixby said his biggest concern is the kindling and peat that could burn of control.
Simons said a peat fire is "very unlikely" and that burns are conducted when the peat is wet from spring rains. A peat fire would burn into the ground until it hit water, he said.
Simons said that it might take several fires to bring the habitat back to the condition that would allow native plants and animals to thrive.
Many threatened species thrive in this type of wetland habitat, Pelc said, including the Mitchell's satyr butterfly, one of the rarest butterflies in the world that is only found in Michigan and Indiana. The presence of this butterfly delayed the extension of U.S. 31.
The fire permit is usually obtained the day before the burn, Simons said.
Simons said his company has done "hundreds, if not thousands," of prescribed burns, and they have learned how to keep the flames within bounds.
With some of the doubts expressed by Berrien Township officials, Pelc the future of the project is "to be decided."
Underwood said the proposal has the support of Berrien County's administrator and parks director, and they will have to talk to the officials to decide how to proceed.
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