Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung sets fire to preserve lands

It was long overdue, but last weekend, land at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung was burned.

As part of ongoing conservation efforts, a controlled prescribed burn of some of the historic site was undertaken in order to help keep the ecosystem healthy. The traditional burn is said to expose new nutrients to the soil and cull the spread of invasive and pest species.

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung curator and administration manager Kayleigh Speirs noted that this year’s burn was the first one to take place in several years, which is notable as it’s an action that they’ve always aimed to have take place on an annual basis.

“This is the first time since 2017 that we’ve been able to burn,” Speirs said.

“That’s why it was just so important we got it done this year. It needed to happen for the health of the site; all the plants, the trees, the animals, the insects, everything. It is a really essential thing that we do. It’s an important conservation and preservation tool.”

Setting fire to the prairie grasses that grow in this section of the site, across the river from Minnesota’s Franz Jevne State Park, accomplishes a number of objectives, according to both Speirs and the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung website.

“As fire burns through the prairie, it exposes the mineral soil, allowing for new growth to thrive,” the website reads.

“Prairie plants are well adapted to fire as their growth tissue is located below the topsoil, safe from the effects of a fast burning fire. While the prairie plants continue to grow after a fire, woody plants are set back or destroyed as their growth material sits at the upper tip of each plant.”

The website goes on to explain that without these man-made and carefully controlled fires, such lands would likely burn every three to five years due to natural causes like lightning strikes, but the prescribed burn is as much cultural as it is ecological, and Speirs explained its something Indigenous people have been doing throughout history.

“I think something a lot of people probably don’t realize is that Indigenous people all across the world, but definitely in North America, have been doing prescribed burns for thousands of years,” she said.

“There are so many different reasons; agricultural reasons to prep for gardening, stuff like we do to maintain sites. Some of why we do this is to hold back the poplar. It also makes a really healthy environment for the rest of the plants. It’s a tool that’s been used really forever. It helps stop forest fires. It really is a tool that a lot more places should be using more.”

Executing the burn is simple enough in practice, but takes experienced hands to guide the process in a safe manner. Members of the Rainy River First Nations fire department and others with forest and wildfire experience took the lead and started off with a fire that would essentially create a barrier of burned material at the westernmost edge of the area to be burned. After that barrier had been established, volunteers with fire starters and others with water packs then move eastward along the perimeter of the area, setting small fires that eventually grow and merge together, cleansing the area in between of small invasive saplings, dead growth and other detritus, leaving behind ash that will allow new growth to flourish in its place. Burning several acres of land on Saturday took the teams roughly four hours for the majority of the process, though some smaller pockets would remain and be checked on periodically to ensure they remained under control.

The flames that are produced during such a controlled burn are intense, growing to several feet tall in minutes, creeping forward at a steady pace and producing astonishing heat and a landscape that looks torn from an apocalypse. However, even with the intensity of the fire, there is no concern for established living trees nor the contents of the mounds themselves, protected as they are under feet of dirt.

“The mounds are definitely protected,” Speirs explained.

“We don’t do much to maintain them because they just don’t need a whole lot. This also helps preserve them, it will stop some of the little trees that would grow on them that would cause issues with their root systems. [The burn] really does more good than it would do harm.”

Fire is dangerous and deadly in the wrong circumstances, and is an element to be respected, but Speirs also stressed it has beneficial and positive properties as well.

“People often view fire as such a destructive force, and it obviously can be, but in this case it’s basically the complete opposite,” she said.

“We’re doing it to maintain the site, to preserve it, for conservation. And if more places were to do this, there would be less forest fires. It is a really important conservation tool with cultural implications as well.”