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Smoke in the air ...

ST. LEO - Joe Blastick is looking to put more smoke up in the air, all for what it makes possible on the ground. Better habitat. Blastick is a fire manager with The Nature Conservancy's Prairie Coteau office in Clear Lake S.D., serving southweste...

Submitted / A trained fire fighter helps set a prescribed burn on conservation land in this photo provided by fire trainer Joe Blastick with The Nature Conservancy.
Submitted / A trained fire fighter helps set a prescribed burn on conservation land in this photo provided by fire trainer Joe Blastick with The Nature Conservancy.

ST. LEO - Joe Blastick is looking to put more smoke up in the air, all for what it makes possible on the ground.

Better habitat.

Blastick is a fire manager with The Nature Conservancy's Prairie Coteau office in Clear Lake S.D., serving southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. Thanks to a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Legacy funding, he's helped train volunteers with 14 rural fire departments in western Minnesota on how to conduct prescribed burns over the past three years.

He's also been able to provide the departments with shirts and pants, breathing masks, and similar safety gear appropriate for grassland fires in place of the heavy boots, jackets and helmets used when fighting structural fires.

Blastick trained trained volunteers with the Appleton and Canby departments earlier this spring. On April 5, he trained a dozen members of the St. Leo Volunteer Fire Department in central Yellow Medicine County. It's likely to be the last department that will be trained under the program. The funding has dried up.

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The need has not.

"Across the board, we know there is not an agency or entity out there that can handle all of the prescribed fire needs,'' Blastick told the St. Leo firefighters.

State and federal agencies such as the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work hard to conduct prescribed burns on public lands. Pheasants Forever and The Nature Conservancy are among the non-governmental agencies conducting prescribed burns for private landowners.

The more rural departments that are trained and equipped to take on the task to help private lands, the more conservation lands that will benefit, plain and simple, according to Blastick.

The remaining native prairie and the conservation lands on the western Minnesota landscape are limited and fragmented, he noted. It's all the more reason to use the tool of prescribed burning to better manage those we have. "What little habitat we have left becomes better habitat,'' he explained.

Prescribed burns are effective at controlling invasive woody plants and give native prairie plants an advantage over invasive cool season grasses. Fires can be disruptive to wildlife, but the adverse effects can be minimized. An area of undisturbed habitat should be kept available for re-colonization by the critters impacted by any given burn, he told the firefighters.

The benefits of prescribed burns for grassland management are well known in some areas of the country. Minnesota has not yet adopted the "fire culture'' needed, he believes.

The more fire departments that help private landowners use prescribed burns for conservation management, the more smoke that we will see in the skies of early spring. That's all a step towards getting people in western Minnesota more comfortable with and aware of the benefits of prescribed burns, Blastick explained.

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Fire departments that conduct prescribed burns can charge for the service and benefit from the revenue.

The training and equipment has another benefit for the participating departments. They are better able to respond to those unwanted grass fires to which they are often called. While rural departments conduct most of their training on fighting structural fires, the reality is that they will respond to more grass fires than building fires in any given year, Blastick noted.

The 14 departments he has trained are under no obligation to conduct additional prescribed burns because of it, but the last two seasons have shown that most have done so. "Some really hit the ground running,'' said Blastick. Some have gone on to purchase additional gear on their own, thanks to the revenue raised by conducting the needed burns.

As one chief told him: "We're done flipping pancakes.''

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