There’s a widespread impression that fire is necessarily detrimental to wildlife. (Perhaps Smokey the Bear’s to blame.) Actually certain ecosystems, including the prairies of the Midwest and the Florida Everglades, are adapted to fire, and require it for renewal. Accordingly, prescribed fires come in handy for restoration projects—in which ecologists take an active part in rehabilitating damaged habitats.
The first-ever major rehabilitation of a prairie involved fire as a management tool. In 1934, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum undertook to restore the Curtis Prairie, which had been settled by Europeans in 1837 and which was plowed regularly until the early 1920s, at which point it was used as a horse pasture. When the conservationists got to it, it was devoid of native prairie plants and overrun with Kentucky bluegrass—but they discovered that controlled biennial fires could retard the Kentucky interloper and encourage the growth of once-native vegetation.