Missouri Western prepares for controlled burn on campus prairie

Mar. 31—St. Joseph residents can expect to see plumes of smoke coming from the campus of Missouri Western State University soon.

A large, controlled burn will be taking place at the 25-acre John Rushin Teaching and Research Prairie on the northeast side of campus. Biology department chair, Mark Mills, said tallgrass prairies are fire-adapted, meaning the plants and animals need fire to thrive.

"If you don't burn a tallgrass prairie, eventually it becomes a forest. Trees will grow," Mills said. "In order to maintain the diversity and the structure that you need for a good, healthy prairie, you need fire."

Right now, Mills said the biology department is aiming to do the burn on Saturday, April 1. However, this could change due to weather conditions.

"This is an urban area, so we have to be ultra cautious about things like wind direction," Mills said. "Mostly, that's for smoke management. We don't want the smoke going in directions that it would be no good. The idea is to have (the smoke) lift high enough and move off in a direction that would affect the fewest number of people."

The prairie was planted in January 2020, and this is the first time it will be burned. Mills said there will be a team of about 15 to 20 people assisting in the process, and the burn will be done by Missouri Western biology students and staff.

Along with maintaining the prairie, Mills said this is also an opportunity for students to get hands-on experience.

"The tools, the know-how, the experience that they gather here will carry forth into their future careers and jobs," Mills said. "We think that's as important as just making a healthy prairie. We want to give these students the opportunity to do that."

He said the students helping with the burn have gone through training with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and many have prior experience from other jobs. Mills and some fellow professors have also done controlled burns and will be working with the students.

Missouri Western has also created a burn plan and consulted with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said some of these advisers may be on-site the day of the burn, along with the fire department.

"People just need to understand that in order for this prairie to be a prairie, for us to manage it correctly, we need to burn it," Mills said. "And we're going to do that in the safest way possible."

He wants people to know it is normal for prairies to burn, and this prairie will need to burn regularly every three to five years. Mills said the burn will stimulate the native plants, and he expects things to be green again a couple of weeks after the burn, and then things to bloom in the summer.

If the burn does not happen this Saturday, Mills said it likely will be done in weeks to come when weather conditions are more ideal. Kent Heier, Missouri Western's assistant director of public relations and marketing, said whenever the burn does take place, traffic will be restricted on Messanie and South 50th streets near campus.

Morgan Doyle can be reached at morgan.doyle@newspressnow.com