Fire at Rat River Wildlife Area

Burning Green Ash tree.

Burning Green Ash tree.

This morning I went to the Rat River State Wildlife Area to take some photographs to hike through the marsh.  When I set up my camera to take a time lapse series of the sunrise I notice that smoke hung low over the marsh way across the river.   I didn’t give it much thought since I was busy racing against time to get my cameras all set up.  After everything was set I began to think about where it might be coming from.  It occurred to me that it was either a someone living nearby with a fire and the smoke just stayed low in the air, or it was the smoldering remains of a wild fire.

After the sunrise I packed up and headed over to investigate.  It turned out the section of marsh I had visited last week had burned, and part of the hardwood swamp too.     The source of the smoke were trees that were still burning.  The burning trees were all hollow, some were Green Ash and some were Swamp White Oaks.   I took some photos and video of these burning trees, but then thought better of it.  These trees were hollow and the flames were eating away at their bases.  One of the trees was more than 60 feet and could have easily clobbered me if it came down, so I retreated to the treeless marsh.  As I plodded along in the marsh breaking ice, splashing water and getting covered with soot I could hear small trees or branches falling in the swamp.   I had made a good decision.

After awhile I ran across a guy from the DNR.  He said that the fire started the previous day in the early afternoon, and that they had been out until 11:00 last night working on it.  He went on to say that they would be doing a lot of mopping up today.  I wished him well.

It was later reported on the local news that the fire had burned 600-1000 acres and was likely started by a spark from a passing train.

While some may mourn the loss of the loss caused by the blaze the fire is actually a good thing in this wetland.  Most of the trees have thick enough bark to withstand the fire, and the marsh will be healthier after the fire.  See this post on the benefits of wildfire.  I don’t know all the facts of this blaze, perhaps some property was destroyed, but at least there is an upshot for the natural world.

Bur Oak trees after a fire.

Bur Oak trees after a fire.

My second surprise of the day was that although the temperatures were in the 40’s most places, in the marsh there was frost, and the standing water had a thin layer of ice.  I already knew that cold air sinks down into wetlands making them colder at night, but I was expecting ice this morning.  When I was exploring the burned over part there was ice on the water there two, and the mud exposed by the ATV’s that were used to control the fire was also frozen.  In some area under the thin layer of ice and a foot of water, the ground was still frozen solid.  The fire it seems did not have much of an effect on the ice way below, or provide enough residual heat to keep the wetland thawed.Post

Post Fire Regrowth

Oak Trees after fire

Two oaks and the rest of the marsh look just fine after the fire.

Burned Cattails

Burned invasive cattails are regrowing just fine after the fire.

Willow tree after fire

Willow Tree after fire is leafing out despite its black, charred bark.

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