On March 12, 2019, staff from the Great Lakes Fire Management Zone conducted the 16 acre Miller Woods Unit #7 Prescribed Fire at Indiana Dunes National Park. Two weeks later, on March 27, that small prescribed fire helped protect the Park’s Douglas Center for Environmental Education from a 200 acre wildfire.
The Miller Woods Unit #7 is a small burn unit directly surrounding the park’s $5.1 million dollar Douglas Center for Environmental Education. By using prescribed fire as a resource management tool and burning around the structure and it’s adjacent grounds, the NPS created a defensible space with a reduced fuel load. This allowed the fire staff to suppress the wildfire before it threatened the structure. Indiana Dunes National Park staff have been utilizing prescribed burning around this structure on a regular basis for the last 20 years.
On March 27, the Great Lakes Fire Management Zone staff, as well as The Huron-Manistee National Forest Wildland Fire Module and their Type 6 Engine, planned to conduct two large and one small prescribed fire in the west unit of the park. Unfortunately, higher than acceptable winds at the larger of the three burn units kept that prescribed fire from happening. Shortly before noon on the 27th, Indiana Dunes National Park dispatchers notified firefighters of a wildfire east of the planned prescribed fire. While responding to that wildfire, firefighters were also dispatched to a fire west of the Douglas Center in Miller Woods.
What was originally thought to be one small fire in Miller Woods turned out to be 3 different fires all burning about a mile west of the Douglas Center. Strong southwest winds, quickly merged the smaller fires into one and sent it burning towards the Douglas Center.
Miller Woods is a Black Oak Savanna with a very active wildfire history. Oak savannas are sparsely treed grasslands where fire-resistant oaks stand among prairie plants. This grassy, open savanna area causes difficulties for firefighters. Wildfires in Miller Woods can travel extremely fast when wind driven. Firefighters traditionally have used fire as a tool to fight large wildfires in Miller Woods. This fire was no exception.
Having plenty of firefighters in the park due to the planned prescribed fires, and knowing that the Douglas Center was protected due to the March 12 Miller Unit #7 prescribed fire, the firefighters were able to suppress the wildfire and protect the park structure. Using the previous Miller Unit #7 fireline as their back-stop, crews lit fire between the main wildfire and the Douglas Center, essentially taking away fuel from the wildfire. This technique, used across the county in battling wildfires, proved more effective and safer than attempting to stop the fast moving wildfire by digging control lines or stretching fires hoses from engines.
At the end of the day, 216-acres of Miller Woods were burned; however the Douglas Center for Environmental Education and the surrounding communities were protected thanks to the previous prescribed fire, and the hard work of the National Park Service and US Forest Service firefighters.
Last updated: April 5, 2019