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Fires & Floods

Ahhhh, April. Is there any more schizoid month on the calendar in our fair state?

We started the month with slightly above average temps, and felt a hint of promise on meeting our prescribed fire goals, anxiously checking and re-checking various fire weather outlets to find the right mix of wind, humidity, and temperature.

We managed to get a very nice fire through at Bloody Run County Park on a recently-initiated savanna restoration. This area represents the last of the low-hanging fruit for the park's amazing goat prairies and oak savannas masked by a few decades of encroaching shade-tolerant trees and accumulating leaf litter.

Smoldering back towards the fireline at Bloody Run

But immediately after, the weather took a turn for the worse - for burn managers anyway. Winds and temperatures kicked up while humidity plummeted, and the state fire marshal put in a burn ban for much of the state including Clayton County.

We quickly learned why, when our cousin CCB's from out west had to mobilize along with countless partner agencies to fight one of the largest wildfires to occur in the Hawkeye state in recent memory. What began as a structure fire escaped to the surrounding grassland and raced across the Loess Hills, torching over 3,000 acres before crews could contain it.

Monona County wildfire, photo courtesy of Schrader Drone Services

When the burn ban first came down, I felt a little pang of frustration. Our Becker West wildlife area, replete with fire-hating multiflora rose, held the highest priority. This unit has a lot of complexity, with hundreds of acres of CRP surrounding it, rugged topography, and a stubborn fuel load that has struggled to ignite in the past. At this point, for the site, we were hoping for some aggressive fire conditions to ensure a quality burn.

But fire season is an exercise in threading a needle while the sewing machine is running, and as quick as the conditions became good, they turned the corner into too good to burn safely. Eventually the conditions moderated, allowing us to finally get a decent fire through the woods at Becker for the first time since 2020.

We also managed to get good fire on the ground at Motor Mill, where we sought to clear thatch for a targeted herbicide application to the reed canary grass that has come to dominate a small prairie reconstruction adjacent to the campground. With the hot, dry weather we opted to use a backing fire (burning against the wind) all the way through.

Here at Osborne, we were able to check off a few first-fire locales, most notably surrounding the Osborne pond where wild parsnip threatens anglers, turf grass threatens a recent prairie planting, and a small parcel of remnant prairie struggled under decades of thatch.

The hot and dry conditions wound down to unseasonable cold, exacerbated by persistent high winds. While this put a damper on the emerging spring wildflowers, hesitant to open on cloudy, cold days, it did help with another elemental force: spring flooding on the Mississippi river.

Confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers two days after flood peak

My adopted hometown of McGregor worked feverishly to bolster flood protections, sandbagging and pumping their way through mid-to-late April to protect against what projected to be the second-highest crest in the town's recorded history.

The cold spell gripping the upper Midwest turned out to moderate the flooding, slowing down the snowmelt taking place further north, and reducing the peak to "only" the third-highest ever.

The Mississippi river backing into the Yellow River floodplain

We fielded a lot of questions about the flood's impact on our parks and operations, but truth be told for a Big River county we have a little less to worry about than our neighbors to the north and south. Only Frenchtown park, north of Guttenberg, saw any serious inundation, but aside from a few primitive shelters and picnic tables, rising waters present little threat to property.

Reflecting on the month, I'm struck by the unusual combination of wildfires on one end of the state, and near-record flooding on the other. I'm left wondering how unusual it really is, or if we'll consider it unusual for much longer in the context of a changing climate.

At this winter's Iowa Prairie Network seminar, INHF fire specialist Kody Wohlers gave a talk on how climate change has impacted prescribed fire season. Some of the expectations he laid out included more unseasonably high temperatures in spring (check), higher wind speeds (check), and more drastic swings between droughty and wet conditions (check).

This April offered a crash course in the localized impact of climate change, and the need for preparedness and adaptability to meet our goals with a moving target. Climate change means more than global warming, it means more energy generally in the atmospheric system driving everything from temperatures to precipitation regimes and wind patterns. In a state with wild swings in the weather long before the Anthropocene, that increased energy commands respect. Four of the five highest river crests ever recorded at McGregor have occurred in the last 30 years. Recent years have seen near-records for windiest, coldest, warmest, and driest Aprils recorded since good weather tracking began.

The message is clear: we've got to adjust our expectations on what April, and indeed the entire calendar, may bring in terms of wind, water, fire and earth.

Looking Back

Spring peepers started peeing, the ephemerals started blooming, and the sound of busses braking in the parking lot all signified the arrival of spring proper. One of our first big events of the growing season saw nearly 100 students from Elkader Central schools come out for "Earth Day," (albeit on April 18th, a little before the actual Saturday of Earth Day) at the Motor Mill Historic Site.

Using a divide-and-conquer strategy, the students split into groups to knock down old stumps in the south unit savanna restoration, dig trees out of the large prairie unit, and pull crown vetch. Another group came to Osborne to pull honeysuckle.

I was struck by how some of them, once they recognized their targets, deemed the projects "daunting." I could only say "imagine how I feel." They'd brought 20-30 bodies to each of these tasks; we've got all of 8 full-time employees. You can do the math, but suffice it to say that even with a modest effort the groups took a very meaningful bite out of some substantial projects.

Pasque flowers at Motor Mill

Later that week, on April 21st, we hosted a Pasque Flower Walk to view these icons of the prairie at that same Motor Mill Historic Site. The flowers themselves put on quite a show, but the group also rambled elsewhere and made quite a few interesting discoveries, including but not limited to this rock.

Driftless drift

Seems rather unremarkable, I know, but this a sizeable granite boulder. For the "driftless" area, this otherwise-unremarkable rock represents a pretty significant find. Checking in with some geologists, they confirmed that it's likely a glacial erratic, quite an unusual occurrence here in the supposed "land the glaciers missed".

Finally, on April 28th, we had the chance to help out with a group of dedicated gravel bikers for the Driftless 100 Gravel Bike Race. Most strikingly, the parking lots overflowed with license plates from all over the country - Utah, Arizona, even Canada. Rider after rider commented on the surprising beauty of Clayton County's gravel roads (no surprise to us), with more than a few calling it one of the toughest races they've ever done. Kudos to Mat Fassbinder on organizing this incredible event.

Riders enjoying the last bit of flat ground before the ride

Looking Forward

Come celebrate Endangered Species Day at the Osborne Pond of May 19th! After a reading from The Lorax, participants will get a chance to explore the nightlife in the pond using dip nets and buckets.

The week after, on May 26th, we'll be leading a Savanna Saunter at Bloody Run County Park. Whether you're a birdwatcher, flower child, tree hugger, or just like a good hike, this is the event for you. We'll meet at the back end of the campground for the 1.3 mile hike but be advised - it's a rugged one!

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