- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

BELLEVUE, Neb. (AP) - For the first time in its 103-year history, Bellevue’s Fontenelle Forest will perform controlled burns across the majority of its land beginning next month.

The prescribed burn is part of a larger restoration plan that aims to transform about 1,160 acres of the nearly 2,000-acre property by thinning out built-up brush and invasive plants to open up space for native grasses, wildflowers, oak trees and wildlife.

“It’s amazing when you think what (the forest) looked like even 30, 40 years ago,” Brad Watkins, director of development and communications for Fontenelle Forest, told the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/1j9bzCA ). The past century has seen the area transform from a savanna with sparse oak trees to a dense forest.

Since Fontenelle Forest’s founding, the park has used prescribed fire only sparingly and in small concentrations. This is its first large-scale burning.

Staff began discussing the idea of a controlled burn with the Bellevue Fire Department after a wildfire crept into the forest in spring 2014. They considered using a controlled burn not only to restore the natural habitat, but also to remove some of the forest’s fuel as a way to keep it from igniting again by accident.

The burns will occur in 15- to 20-acre chunks, spread out over 10 years or longer. The first chunk - an 18.8-acre area near the Hawthorn Trail, about three-fourths of a mile from the Nature Center - will be burned in late November or early December. Timing will depend on weather and other conditions. Forest officials will wait for a day when winds - both high and low in the atmosphere - blow from west to east, keeping the smoke away from most of Bellevue’s population.

“We don’t expect a lot - it should be pretty low smoke,” Watkins said.

For people who live in residential areas, it will smell like a campfire, with smoke visible in the distance, blowing away. “We assume it will kind of just disperse, especially with the way the wind blows,” he said.

Fontenelle Forest plans to hold several open house public meetings for neighbors to ask questions and voice concerns about the burn. Information sessions will be held at the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center on Oct. 22 and 30 and Nov. 5 and 7.

Neighbors seem to understand the rationale behind the burn.

Bill Swick, 72, lives in a house that backs up to the forest. He said he knows the dangers, but he would rather that forest officials burn back some of the overgrowth than let it stand. “My real concern is if they don’t do something like that, then you could end up with something like what’s happening in California, where people are losing their houses to wildfires,” he said.

In some areas of Fontenelle Forest, new oak trees haven’t grown in more than 100 years because of excessive shading, poor soil and competition from other species. The burn, ideally, will change that.

Clearing the forest will bring in more light and breeze and will allow native grasses and wildflowers to replace invasive species such as garlic mustard, autumn olive, honeysuckle and hackberry.

There will be fewer mosquitoes and more bees, bats, deer, woodpeckers and other wildlife. The project will help reduce soil erosion and enhance groundwater quantity and quality.

“It’s going to be a long-term project,” Watkins said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But it’s a great place to start.”

The project is funded primarily by a three-year grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The $328,000 grant will help pay for two full-time fire-trained employees along with equipment and training. Other funding will come from a pair of private donors ($15,000) and conservation partners ($30,000), including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Additional costs will come out of Fontenelle Forest’s budget.

Portions of the forest will close during the burning, but at no point will it close entirely during normal hours. Staff members are working with the Bellevue Fire Department.

“They’ve been very, very thorough. They’ve put a lot of thought into this,” said Bellevue Fire Chief Perry Guido. “So we don’t really have any concerns at this point.”

During the burn, a five-person staff from Fontenelle Forest will clear and burn brush and leaves, with two using hand-held drip torches to produce low-intensity flames. A member of the Fire Department will supervise.

The brush and leaves will burn for about two hours, followed by three or four hours of cleanup and several days of monitoring. Then crews will begin the planning process for another patch of land, which will again have to be approved by the Fire Department.

Crews hope to burn an additional portion of forest in late winter, sometime in January or February before spring growth starts to emerge. Burns will be conducted only while plants are dormant in late fall and winter.

This isn’t the first time the forest has done a controlled burn, though it is the most extensive.

In November 1971, 10 to 12 acres of the forest were burned to create a prairie. In 1993, the forest burned almost 8 acres near its boardwalk, and a few more areas the following year.

At Neale Woods, a property owned by Fontenelle Forest south of Fort Calhoun, staff has done prescribed burning for the past 12 years.

Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders, who is a paying member of Fontenelle Forest, was concerned about air quality before meeting with the staff at Fontenelle Forest on Monday, but she left the meeting feeling reassured about their plan.

“I think they’re really trying to be proactive and make sure these citizens are well-informed on when it might happen and why it might happen,” she said.

Dealing with public concern is common for other nature centers that perform controlled burns in urban settings. The Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee dealt with challenges similar to those of Fontenelle when it began a series of controlled burns last year.

The burnt forest isn’t a charred wasteland, like one might expect. Careful burning clears away brush, but it doesn’t take down trees or blacken the earth for long. Within about a week, seedlings begin popping back up.

“Things really fill in,” said Kim Forbeck, manager of land stewardship for the Urban Ecology Center. “You can’t even tell there’s fire within a couple weeks.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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