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Silver lining in fire at Fontenelle Forest wetlands

WOWT Live at 10
Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 10:51 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Fire is part of the process when it comes to managing natural resources like the Fontenelle Forest, but what happened Friday and continues now was not part of the plan.

The good news coming in the aftermath of the Fontenelle Forest fire is that the burned areas will likely come back strong in a year or so.

A car fire Friday night, off the forest property, was thought to be out. But the winds blew and by Saturday an eastern section of Fontenelle Forest, an Omaha area gem along the Missouri River, was burning.

”Saturday morning we took a UTV ride on our southern most trail, and we encountered fire and hikers on the trail,” said Michelle Foss, Fontenelle Forest director of resource stewardship. “So we pulled the hikers out, we called our crews in and we got to work to protect our infrastructure, the main boardwalk, bird blind, and our docks.”

Bellevue Fire worked alongside and while the fire moved onto Nebraska Game and Parks property, they were able to work together to install a key fire break in between the marsh and the boardwalk. The fire continues to burn but is moving slowly and is not expected to gain any more ground.

As of now, it has touched about 375 acres on the Gifford Point flood plain, including the land area around the great marsh wetlands.

The forest’s trails in the uplands are safe and remain open, but to the east of the railroad tracks, some 700 acres and eight trails are closed.

”A lot of these trees are huge, very dead, and very dry,” Foss said. “We fully expect some things to be on fire for months.”

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Posted by Fontenelle Forest on Monday, April 25, 2022

The upland areas are safe and 20 trails remain open, but there really is no timeline as to when the trails around the wetlands will reopen.

“Until that fire goes out, we can’t even get in for sure to know what we have to do,” Foss said. “We have trees 80 feet in from the trail that are likely to fall, so we have to make sure trails are safe before we can open them again.”

Foss said while a planned burn is better, they’re not always feasible in flood plain areas around the property’s great marsh. The cost and manpower are high, but in other areas, they are able to manage the land with prescribed burns. So the area needed to be cleared out, one way or another.

“It’s cleaning up some of the invasive plants that have come in, it’s also clearing up some of the deadfall from the 2011 and 2019 floods,” Foss said. “We anticipate, actually, a positive ecological response by the time it’s all said and done. It’ll help clear the ground for some of the new wetlands plants to take hold and to produce more of that wetland effect. We’ll have some of those invasives out of the way and it’ll be cleaner and easier for us to get in and see what’s going on.”

That’s ultimately good news to nature lovers like Mike Schilmoeller, who has been bird watching here for the past decade.

“There’s water down there, that we don’t have in the upper hills, so that attracts a lot of birds,” Schilmoeller said of the wetlands area. “About two, three weeks ago we had about 300 or 400 white pelicans and they’re just beautiful to watch.”

He learned about the fire, and the closure of 700 acres and eight trails, when he came to hike Monday.

“The wetlands is the place to be right now,” he said. “The warblers usually come in and the passerines come in first down there. So it’s kind of too bad we can’t go down there, but it’ll probably come back even better after the fire, probably next year sometime.”

The remaining trails remain open, and some of the eight closed trails could reopen sooner than others.

Fontenelle Forest will post any updates regarding trail openings on their social media sites and website.

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