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Scheduled burns help preserve natural wildlife in MN River Valley

Every spring and fall, land managers in and around Minnesota survey parts of the state for an annual burn cycle that benefits the environment in multiple ways, including preservation of native species and soil enrichment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin controlled burns on refuge units and Waterfowl Protection Areas of the nearby Minnesota Valley National Refuge this month, including the Louisville Swamp.

USFWS Park Ranger Hanna McBrearty works at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and helps coordinate area burns throughout the season.

McBrearty said the burns are “prescribed” just like prescribing medication — except in this case, rather than for treatment of a disease, the prescription treats an area of land that needs to be cleaned out of invasive species and see a revitalization of plants that are native to prairie and oak savannas.

While fire is often viewed solely as a destructive force, it’s actually one of the best natural tools for preservation, she said.

Invasive species are killed by the fire. Meanwhile, native plants like Little bluestem and Indiangrass increase significantly after a fire takes place, McBrearty said.

“It’s amazing how quickly they grow back,” said McBrearty.

This is because native species have adapted to the fire. Before Europeans arrived in the 17th century, the Great Plains of Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin witnessed yearly fires across the region.

When there is a burn, the remains of the plants that are killed are locked into the soil, which increases soil fertility.

Periodic, controlled burns also reduce the risk of nearby communities in the event of a wildfire by reducing dead vegetation that can become hazardous fuel to an uncontrolled blaze.

How it’s controlled

Three things contribute to the chemical reaction that causes fire: oxygen, heat and fuel.

Firefighters use the same three things — what McBrearty called the “fire triangle” — to control a fire.

They can remove heat by applying water or remove oxygen by using a tool called a flapper. Contrary to the old adage, you can use fire to fight fire, McBrearty said — lighting a secondary fire can help remove fuel from the primary one.

Control of the fire begins with preparing the site it will take place at.

This begins as early as the fall before the burn, where crews remove fallen leaves around the perimeter of the burn unit.

These become control lines called “firebreaks” which need to be two to three times as wide as the height of the nearest “surface vegetation,” usually grass or shrubs. The lack of flammable material in these control lines prevents fire from spreading through them.

McBrearty said natural barriers such as roadways, streams and crop fields can also serve as control lines.

Burn process

Often a burn will start with a fire lit on the downwind side of the burn site, a “backing fire.”

The backing fire moves slowly against the wind as crews monitor it and begin watering part of the control line. This creates an even deeper control zone, McBrearty said. It’s considered “black” when the vegetation has turned to ash.

If it smolders, firefighters can use a tool called a flapper to deprive the fire of oxygen.

Then, fire personnel light along either side of the unit parallel to the wind direction, and the two fires grow together in the interior of the unit.

The upwind section is then lit, which is spurred by the wind into the black, where the fire will extinguish itself, having no fuel left to burn.

Crews have engines and UTVs with water hoses standing by in case any flying embers escape. Any lingering hot spots near the perimeter are extinguished with water and flappers, said McBrearty.

Safety first

Before a flame can be lit, numerous safety concerns have to be met in order to actually control the prescribed fire.

Weather conditions, which can be iffy around this time of year, are among the first of the considerations surrounding a fire.

“It’s highly weather contingent,” McBrearty said. “We don’t know until the day of or day before if there will be ideal conditions to have a burn.”

Factors including wind speed and direction, temperature, relative humidity and vegetation conditions are considered, as well as smoke dispersion and proximity of nearby buildings.

When a burn has been planned, local fire departments and dispatch are always notified.

McBrearty said this is done for two reasons — firstly, when people see smoke, they often call it in to their local fire department as a wildfire. Secondly, this measure ensures firefighters know when and where the fire will be taking place should something go wrong.

Each year, wildland-qualified City of Bloomington firefighters assist the Minnesota Valley refuge with their burns, and wildland firefighters from Minnesota Valley and other USFWS staff assist the City of Bloomington with burns on native prairies, wetlands and park landscapes within the city, McBrearty said.

“Urban habitat is an important component of a healthy and productive ecosystem, and it takes many hands to conduct a burn safely, effectively, and efficiently,” said McBrearty.

Public lands scheduled for prescribed burns this year include Erin Prairie WPA (Rice County), Howard Farm WPA (Blue Earth County), Lincoln WPA (Blue Earth County), Bass Ponds-Long Meadow Lake Unit (Hennepin County), Louisville Swamp Unit (Scott County) and Straight Creek WPA (Steele County).

Visitors can stay up to date on when burns will take place by following the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page or website fws.gov/refuge/minnesota_valley.

Questions specific to prescribed burning by the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge can also be sent to to hanna_mcbrearty@fws.gov.

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Community-wide garage sales return

For a single $5 bill, Alyssa Aleckson found the perfect (read: cute) snowsuit for her daughter. It was in pristine condition, just like the suits she could have found elsewhere for maybe $30.

“That just had me on a high all day,” the Chaska resident says. “At the garage sales, you’re sure to find what you need at like pennies on the dollar.”

Others looking to score similar finds: get ready. Neighborhood-wide driveway bargaining is quickly approaching.


The thrill of finding treasures for cheap is enough to bring many in. For others, it’s more humanitarian.

Marian Moriarty Baumgard has lived in Jordan all her life. So when she heard the longstanding annual Jordan City Wide Garage & Yard Sale was a no-go this year, she stepped up.

“I hijacked the Jordan City Wide,” she jokes.

It seems more people sell items online or publicize individual garage sales instead, she said, prompting the reported cancellation. Moriarty Baumgard already runs the “Free Stuff in Jordan Mn” Facebook group and knew of plenty of people who could use free or inexpensive items.

“I started the Facebook page because there are people in need and with COVID, they’ve lost their jobs (and) they’re not feeling well mentally,” she says. “I had stuff to give away and thought if I start this, other people will join in and it will help all the way around town.”

With the help of a friend in Shakopee, the two will donate or re-sell older products from places like Target and Costco during the Saturday, May 15 sale.

Jordan residents pay $10 to register for the sale. Proceeds will go to the Jordan High School All-Night Graduation Party.

“I love garage sales and I love doing them and I love the idea that people can make a few extra bucks,” Moriarty Baumgard says. “People are getting rid of stuff they don’t want and somebody else needs.”

In Belle Plaine, driveways will soon swap cars out for tables of goodies, too.

The longstanding citywide sale runs from Thursday, April 22 to Saturday, April 24. Wendy Fors will host yet again.

“I have one every year, and every year I say, ‘I’m never doing it again,’” she says.

This year’s selections include name-brand juniors’ clothes, new Tupperware and kitchen items. Her dad’s snowblower will be for sale, too.

Fors typically sees a lot of out-of-towners. As she puts it, people won’t come to Belle Plaine for one garage sale — but they’ll undoubtedly show up for stacked sales.

“I think this year’s gonna be big because people have been so cooped up with COVID, so I think there’s probably a lot of excitement for garage sales,” Fors says.


Saturday, April 24 will mark the 34th Annual Jonathan Association Festival of Garage Sales, joined this season by citywide deals across the metro.

The community-wide Chaska sale, canceled last year due to the pandemic, will likely bring in 60-plus homeowners throughout the neighborhood with an assortment of material delights.

The homeowner’s association with 8,000-some residents has been around for over 50 years. Jeremy Landkammer Ely, board president, notes that the sale has been bringing neighbors together for dozens of those years.

“The ability to socialize and come together as a community is always the best part of these events,” Landkammer Ely says. “I’m excited that we’re able to have this annual event come back and get some semblance of normalcy to kick off the summer season.”

While he’s not hosting a sale this year, he plans to attend. While out-and-about, he’ll potentially run into Aleckson.

“I try to make it a priority whenever I find out when it’s gonna be held, because it’s a lot of fun,” Aleckson says.

She’s hosted sales in years past but this year her family’s been cleaning house, redirecting things they can’t fit in storage to the local Goodwill. Plus, if she hosts a sale?

“Then I can’t go garage saling!” she says. “That one year it was really fun to host, but there’s nothing like being able to go out on your own and just scavenge.”

Aleckson, who’s lived in the Jonathan neighborhood for the last seven years, is on the hunt for a used dresser to repurpose.


Over 100 homes in the Jonathan Association held sales each year in the past several years, according to association management. This year there will be closer to 60 participants as of a few days before the signup deadline.

Landkammer Ely says crowds could go either way.

“I would expect that we would see less than we do in traditional years. Certainly residents choosing for their own personal reasons to have more stringent guidelines may not participate and that’s OK,” he said.

But most sales are outside in yards or driveways, and people can easily keep their distance.

Jonathan sale guidelines ask people to wear face coverings when around people outside their families, even when outside. In Belle Plaine, Fors will have her mask at-the-ready, but isn’t requiring visitors to wear them.

“We believe that we can safely host the garage sales this year with the appropriate safety precautions in place,” Landkammer Ely says.

That includes encouraging contactless payments like phone-pay service Venmo.

The association won’t offer a point location at the World Learner School like previous years, where people can gather for refreshments, grab maps, or use the restroom.

Landkammer Ely says people have remodeled homes, changed how they shop, and have had time to get a really good look of what’s in their house this year. That could all make for a fun garage sale season.

“People have spent time in their home last year. They’ve redecorated and repurposed spaces,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of things people are bringing to the marketplace this year.”