BY Charlotte Suttee
A tall shadow, fire dripping from his hand, manifests behind the silvery, water-vapor-rich smoke. Jenks’ very own AP Environmental teacher, Brian Yockers, sets a grass plot ablaze with a drip torch that makes the plants pop like microwave popcorn.
Yockers isn’t starting giant fires just to look cool, though– he is participating in an important ecological experiment. On Thursday, September 20th, he took about 30 students from all of his classes to the prescribed burn site run by Jenks’ FERST (Fire Ecology Research Station for Teaching) where students witnessed fire on a scale they usually wouldn’t see.
“Like goldilocks: not to much, and not too little, but just in the middle, and you can maximize the biodiversity in an area,” says Yockers.
He’s not talking about porridge here– he’s describing the perfect amount of fire, which supports that an appropriate amount of fire increases the biodiversity in many ecosystems.
“All these plants are adapted to fire,” says John Weir, a top Research Associate for FERST, “and all of our native wildlife is adapted to fire.”
For many decades, people thought fire was bad for our ecosystem and suppressed many healthy, natural fires. In fact, our great plains were shaped by flame.
“With the lack of fire we are seeing a decline in our native species because trees are invading grasslands,” says Weir.
Scientists track more data besides the invasive species during fire experiments like these.
“We are doing some studies looking on proteins and nutrient values, following fires through the seasons,” says Weir.
Many rural Oklahoman farmers burn their land for livestock purposes, and you may see many acres of burned land driving out west of Tulsa.
“A lot of land owners like to burn all the old stuff,” says Yockers, “and when they reintroduce [cattle] there’s this lush reemerging grass for them.”
It’s also important that students who are interested in our changing environment to return to the burn site in the spring.
“As we return again and again you can start to identify a little bit more with each of the plots to understand how that disturbance changes the whole community,” says Yockers.
Yockers will invite his students out to the burnsite again in the spring to check out the resilience of the burned plots and to learn more about the complex environment we’re living in.
For more information about Oklahoma fire ecology, visit https://fpst.okstate.edu/node/24.