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Inauguration fireworks potentially caused on-campus fire

On Saturday, Oct 16, the fireworks set off over Lyman Lakes to celebrate the inauguration of President Byerly also appeared to ignite a fire near the Recreation Center. The patch of grass, measuring approximately five feet by ten feet, was quickly extinguished by security officers and the fire department.

Word spread among students that the fire occurred deeper in the Cowling Arboretum. Upon further inquiry, however, Nancy Braker, Puzak Family Director of the Arb, revealed that its actual location was close to the Recreation Center, amongst the prairie planting. Braker couldn’t confirm the source of the fire, nor did she verify whether the fireworks played any role.

Dan Quinnell, Certified Grounds Maintenance, “didn’t realize there was a fire,” but was aware that “the fire department came and just put water on the grass so it wouldn’t start on fire,” mentioning he did not know any further information. Matthew Elbert, Manager of Cowling Arboretum, responded similarly, adding that he had, “not received any official notification from the College about the incident.” Elbert called upon Braker to provide more information and, although initially responding that all she knew was that the “fire was very small,” she later provided details about the location and reaction, saying that it was “quickly extinguished.” 

Although this fire was unexpected, the Arb and Carleton’s landscapes have a history of planned fires spanning 10,000 years. Indigenous peoples often used fires for a variety of reasons, such as herding animals, stimulating the growth of grass for their herds, and making travel routes. 

The Arb crew and management continue this practice, usually conducting prescribed fires each spring during dry weather and before plants have fully turned green. They also set fire to parts of burnable prairie approximately every four years. These fires are extremely beneficial to a prairie ecosystem and produce a range of benefits, including the reduction of accumulated biomass, the elimination of invasive plants and the clearing of space for new seeds to take root. 

The prairie plants are accustomed to fire, having adapted to grow deep roots or have fire-proof bark. Sometimes, an Arb crew member wrote, forest burns are conducted in the Arb during autumn, enabling spring flowers to grow with greater ease. These fires, however, are rare, as they require constant watch from the staff to ensure that large pieces of wood, which usually smolder for many hours, do not grow into a larger threat. 

Despite the fire from the inauguration being unwanted, and also technically not in the Arb, members of the Arb management staff view controlled fires as an important way to continue the health of the Arb’s ecosystem. 

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