Riverbank Neighbors’ Annual Prairie Grass Burn

By Mike Fourcher | Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Riverbank Neighbors' volunteer Pete Leki sets a controlled backfire to burn prairie grasses along the Chicago River. Credit: Kevin Anderson.

Every spring, for the last ten years, Riverbank Neighbors‘ Pete Leki conducts a controlled burn along the Chicago River between Berteau Avenue and Irving Park Road as well as in the Waters Elementary School garden area. Neighbor Kevin Anderson sent along some of his pictures from last Saturday’s burn and Leki helped explain a bit of what they do.

The following interview was edited and condensed.

CSJ: How often do you burn the grasses?
Pete Leki: We try to burn every year. We don’t make it every year because sometimes the weather conditions aren’t right and we lose the window of opportunity.

CSJ: What are some of the benefits?
Leki: The grasses are there because they do well in occasional fires. They have strong root systems that help them recover quickly from top fires. Other plants that are not from that ecosystem don’t, like woody plants and without strong root systems. To maintain any prairie ecosystem, fire is almost mandatory.”

CSJ: So it’s like a quick and dirty way of weeding.
Yes. It would be almost impossible to do the kind of weeding needed without fire. Especially in the city with the shower of weeds and trees that aren’t part of a savanna/prairie ecosystem.

CSJ: How do you control the burning?
Several of us have gone to trainings on how to do burns. Basically it comes down to knowing the fundamentals of how fire and wind works. Knowing those things helps us to conduct the burn so the hazards are reduced greatly.

When we start we do some trials to know how the wind is blowing and what force it has. So we might conduct some small burns to test it against the wind. That’s the back fire. The head fire is down on the side where the wind is burning. It’s quick and ferocious. We don’t do much of those here in the city. We usually do a back fire, against the wind, so it’s much slower.

It’s pretty easy for us to control these things.

We also have all the paraphernalia for putting out fires. Hoses, pump sprayers, etc.

CSJ: You know of anywhere else in Chicago that does this?
All over the place! The forest preserves, Winnemac Park. All the native grasses are burned regularly.  The fire is needed to maintain those ecosystems.

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