Weather delays prescribed burns at Shawnee National Forest

If you’re driving through southern Illinois, you may see light, smoke and fire coming from parts of the Shawnee National Forest, but don’t panic. Crews are out carefully performing prescribed burns to thousands of acres in big parts of the forest.

But a local expert in prescribed burns says the weather may be putting a damper on their plans.

Ash, soot and crumbled trees fill parts of the Shawnee National Forest. But Fuel Specialist Scott Crist says don’t be alarmed: these fires actually help the forest.

"(They) improve wildlife habitat. Some of them are to improve the growing conditions for certain types of tree species over others," said Crist.

Burning season is underway at Shawnee National Forest, but you wouldn’t find any U.S. Forest Service agents starting any fires Tuesday. They say conditions were too windy and the window to complete the burns is closing. There are only a few days left.

"Normally, we would like to have done probably a dozen more burns by this time for a couple thousand more acres," Crist said.

Crist says the burns are needed to build back the ecosystems for native plants and protect the existing vegetation like the short-leaf pine. The ones in Shawnee National Forest near Wolf Lake are one of just two places they’re found in the state, according to Crist.

But March’s windy, rainy weather has the forest service thousands of acres behind schedule, rushing to get all the burns in before conditions change. There’s no immediate risk if they don’t finish this year, but there could be if things are left alone for longer periods of time.

"Long term, if we don’t get burns done, we can see bigger fires in areas like this," Crist said.

But as long as they keep up with the annual, supervised burns, Crist says Shawnee will continue to grow stronger than ever.

The forest service says if the weather holds, they’ll start their burns back up by Friday or Saturday. They need much of the burns to be completed by the end of March, though some spots can wait a few more weeks.  If they’re not completed, they’ll be pushed back to next year.

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