If you happen to see some smoke rising from the Des Plaines River bank in Riverside over the next few weeks, don’t push the panic button.
The village’s public works department is planning on conducting controlled burns in the wooded areas along the river to restore the native landscape, which over time has become choked with non-native plants that crowd out native species and obscure views of the river.
“It discourages invasives like buckthorn, honeysuckle and garlic mustard,” said Riverside Forester Michael Collins, who conducts the burns, assisted by other trained public works personnel and volunteers. “It helps knock back invasive species in favor of native plants.”
Collins said because prescribed burns are so weather-dependent, he never knows exactly when a burn will be scheduled.
“It’s usually a day-of decision,” said Collins, who conducted the last controlled burn along Riverside Road in the sedge meadow at Indian Gardens and on the hilltop along Swan Pond in 2016.
The primary areas of focus this year, said Collins, will be the sedge meadows near the tennis courts and the Scout Cabin, in Indian Gardens and along Riverside Road.
A recent bout of wet weather has made the areas near the river not ideal for a controlled burn, but if there’s a stretch of dry weather in coming weeks, that could set the stage for one.
“It really is a bit of a crapshoot,” Collins said. “We’re waiting for things to dry out and then have the right weather conditions.”
Controlled burns are probably more about controlling smoke than controlling fire, Collins said, so the speed and direction of wind also plays a major role in deciding whether or not to give the green light.
“Wind direction is the biggest factor,” Collins said.
The village will send out e-flash notifications by email to warn people who may have medical or respiratory ailments that a burn will be happening in a certain area.
Collins said that anyone with health issues likely to be aggravated by the presence of smoke from a controlled burn can contact the public works department at 708-442-3590 so they can be assured of day-of notification.
“If anyone in close proximity [to the river] has issues with asthma or another medical condition, we encourage them to contact us,” Collins said.
If the village does controlled burns this year they will likely take place between now and early April, said Collins, “before the first spring ephemerals [like wildflowers] start coming up.”
The grassy area of Swan Pond is also a potential candidate for a controlled burn, but recent flooding there makes that less likely.
Wetlands plants installed last summer, which were intended to be the first phase of a multiyear restoration of the landscape, got inundated again last month when heavy rains combined with melting snow to flood Swan Pond.
Since being planted in August, those plants have been under water for long periods of time on at least three occasions due to flooding. Just how the plants have weathered those storms is unclear.
“I think spring is going to be a big telltale,” said Collins. “The positive news is that they’re wetlands plants, so they’ve evolved to adapt to these kinds of scenarios.”
In terms of how to approach landscaping in Swan Pond in the future, Collins said that will become apparent over time.
“It’s really hard to say,” Collins said. “My goal is to listen to the site and Mother Nature. It’s the most high-disturbance area in Riverside.”