I worked at The Beacon-News in Aurora for five years. At least half a dozen times in each of those years, we would get the following call from a concerned citizen: “Fermilab’s on fire!”
Without fail, the caller had seen a plume of black smoke rising from the Fermilab grounds, and imagined the worst. And without fail, when I called for information, I found out that the lab had been engaging in prairie burns.
We’ve been burning the prairie again over the past couple weeks, and no doubt some of you have noticed the smoke. (And probably called the newspaper.) So I’m here to tell you that, no, the lab is not burning down. We’re doing this on purpose, and I can tell you why.
Or rather, Mike Becker, of the lab’s roads and grounds department, can tell you why. He says burning is essential to restoring a natural habitat like the 1,000 acres of prairie on the Fermilab site. Natural grasses will have a strong root structure underground, and will grow again after a fire. Invasive plants, the kind you don’t want, will be burned away.
If you don’t burn, Becker said, you’ll get woodsy vegetation, instead of the tall, flowing grass that marks a healthy prairie. Fermilab’s restored grassland represents one of the largest prairies in the state, and that strong network of roots also helps prevent erosion and preserve the area’s aquifers.
But is it safe to burn? Becker said every precaution is taken before and during a prairie burn. Wind direction is one of the biggest factors when deciding whether to burn on a certain day — we don’t want to send smoke onto busy streets like Kirk Road, or into places where people work, Becker said.
Everyone who helps with prairie burns has been through wildfire training, and some of the pros involved have 25 years experience, Becker said. The burns are safe and controlled.
We’re at the end of our current burn season, so you likely won’t be seeing any more plumes of smoke until next spring. Our burns usually take place in March and April, and in November, with the occasional burn in December. Becker said he tries to get to about half the prairie each year — around 600 to 700 acres.
So next time you see smoke rising from Fermilab, check our Facebook page first. That’s where we’ll let you know if a burn is scheduled for that day. And if you’re interested in helping us keep our prairie healthy, check out the Fermilab Natural Areas website for news about upcoming volunteer opportunities.
Andre Salles is the media and community relations specialist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 630-840-6733.