Students set fire to build ecosystems on campus

Back left to right: Henry Thach, Frances Beckman, Christina Tilley. Front: Gabriella Claborn Students from Dr. Alex Peimer’s class attend the prairie burn as extra credit and for fun.

Robin Bridges, Editor in Chief

Smoke rose high over the Physical Education complex for a majority of the day on March 13. NEIU’s first prescribed burn of the year went through to the afternoon as students, faculty and staff burned the tall prairie grass near Saint Louis and Foster Avenues that Tuesday.

Due to weather conditions and other uncontrollable factors, the prescribed burn is a monumental feat that took several months to complete. Dr. Alex Peimer said that another burn was attempted in November 2017 but couldn’t be completed due to rapidly changing the weather and unfavorable burn factors.

“Fires are important for prairies because they help to limit invasive plant growth and promote native plant growth. The fire also can improve soil quality. Because fire promotes native plant growth and improve soil quality, it can also improve wildlife habitat and opportunities for forage,” Peimer said.

He talked about the need for regular natural fires in prairie ecosystems. He said that once NEIU establishes a thriving native plant community burns should be done less frequently. Piemer said, “I’m new to do this, but I’m expecting to do this at least two times a year. By doing this we kick out the invasive plants, for example, last winter they mowed this (prairie grass), but it will grow back up five feet tall by June.”

NEIU’s Geography and Environmental Studies department partnered with the biology department and Facilities Management Ground Crew to get these years burn done. Several professors offered extra credit for students who volunteered to help with the burn.

Agatha Grabowski, a student in Peimer’s class said, “We’re here to learn and just to help the plants regrow. We are burning the prairie, the tall grass. Instead of mowing it down and clearing it out, we burn it down and the ashes replenish the soil with nutrients.”

Grabowski was among several students present for the burn. Students and volunteers used a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline to start the fires and rakes to control and spread the fire to the desired areas.

“I coordinated the prescribed prairie burn with Dr. Melinda Storie and Dr. Steve Frankel. We couldn’t have done this without the support of the Facilities Management Ground Crew, and especially Art Walker,” said Peimer.

Grounds Sub-Foreman Art Walker provided water, fuel and other necessary tools to facilitate the burn and even participated alongside the student and faculty volunteers.

It is recommended that burns like this take place twice a year to clear invasive and non-native species. This allows native plants to grow more naturally and not compete for resources.

“We strongly encourage students, the campus community, and surrounding community members to participate in and observe the burn. We hope that by encouraging and allowing involvement, more people will become interested in our campus prairies and also learn about the importance of fire to prairie ecosystems,” Peimer said.

NEIU was officially recognized as a Tree Campus in 2015 by the Arbour Day foundation. As of spring 2018, there are 18 Tree Campuses in Illinois. Tree Campuses commit to creating a tree care plan, maintaining the campus trees, dedicating funds toward maintaining the trees on campus, observing arbor day and creating service learning for students either on campus or in the community.