A prescribed fire at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island was aimed at putting a dent in invasive plant species. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

When 80-mph winds ripped through the Quad-City region the morning of July 21, 2008, many trees and branches were downed. And while the debris has largely been removed from urban areas, it has piled up in natural places where it has become dangerously dry, posing a fire hazard.

“It is reaching critical levels,” Marilyn Andress of the Rock Island County Soil and Water Conservation District said of the downed wood in places such as Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island and West Lake Park in Davenport.

“With arson or a lightning strike, it could lead to an uncontrolled fire in the woods,” she said.

And because Black Hawk and West Lake are close to residential areas, people and homes could be in danger.

To address this problem, the conservation district and several other area agencies landed a two-year, $120,500 U.S. Forest Service grant for work to clear out the dead, dry wood, or “hazardous fuel,” as it is called, by burning it in a controlled manner.

The areas targeted for work are the 208-acre Black Hawk site, the 620-acre West Lake Park and a 67-acre ecological preserve in Milan that is owned by Augustana College.

Interns already are walking the woods to pinpoint the areas that need to be addressed. Then crews will drag out the piles so that when the wood is burned, it won’t create a huge, reaching-to-the sky blaze. The first fires will be set in the spring if conditions are right.

Mitigating this “hazardous fuel” is part of a bigger effort to restore Black Hawk, West Lake and the Milan preserve, all of which are under siege by the spread of invasive plant species such as burning bush, oriental bittersweet and bush honeysuckle.

 “They’re losing at Black Hawk,” Matt Schramm, also of the Soil and Water Conservation District, said of efforts to curb invasives. “If we don’t get in there and do something now, in five years invasives will be everywhere.”

What Schramm says might be shocking to Quad-Citians familiar with Black Hawk, known for its spring wildflowers as well as mature oak and hickory trees.

Schramm’s point is that without human intervention, the invasives that have been spreading despite caretakers’ efforts to keep them in check could result in the forest ceasing to exist as it does today. It is already degraded.

Mature trees are reaching the end of their life span, and there are few “teenagers” to take their place, Andress said. Baby seedlings sprout, but they die out because they are shaded and crowded by the invasives, she explained.

The same thing is happening with the spring flowers, she added.

What Black Hawk and the other areas need is fire, Schramm and Andress both say. Fire was nature’s way of keeping forests healthy until the time of European settlement, and it needs to be resumed because fire eventually kills out the invasives while leaving the trees unharmed.

Forests are not just fire-tolerant, they are fire-dependent, Andress said. “We are providing what ‘should be.’ Without processes like this, we don’t have regeneration.”

But for burns on the forest floor to take place, those working on restoration first have to get rid of those large piles of dead wood because fires could burn out of control otherwise.

Schramm and Andress want Quad-Citians to understand that the fires will produce some smoke. But they won’t be like the residential leaf-burning piles that choked neighborhoods prior to burn bans because they will be set only under conditions that favor smoke ascending straight up and then dispersing.

Most flames would be less than 2 feet high. And those conducting the burns have the necessary Environmental Protection Agency permits.

Although natural areas face big challenges, “we find they are very resilient,” Andress said. “They will come back. They are waiting for a helping hand. They’re not gone yet. By this intervention, we are bringing back the forest ecosystem.”