Earlier this week I had the opportunity to document the controlled burning of 35 acres of native grasses and wild flowers. What was once left to Mother Nature, with lightning strikes and wildfires, today’s prairies are nurtured with periodic, carefully-planned and controlled burns.
Native grasses can grow over six feet tall. The roots of the prairie grasses run so deep (five feet or more) that the fire on the surface eliminates thatch, weeds and volunteer trees, with no harm to the native grasses.
The fire is started in a very small area at the end of the field downwind of the prevailing wind direction. Two crews of four people each start in the middle of the field’s edge and extend the length of the “fire line” in opposite directions until they reach the sides of the field. Water trucks are standing by to wet down the backside (downwind) of the fireline to ensure that the fire advances into the wind.
After a wide swath (approx. 10′ or more) of prairie is completely burned at the downwind edge of the field, the two crews begin advancing into the wind along the two sides of the field. A birds-eye view of the burned area would look like a giant “U”, with the wide swath at the end of the field being the bottom of the “U”, and the two crews advancing up the sides of the “U”. If the wind should happen to shift, the fire will be contained within the “U”.
Crew members continue patrolling the sides to make sure the fire is contained within the “U”.
These giant “bic lighters” (my term) are used to start the fire; I have no idea why the “pigtail” is needed in the spout. From the smell, I’m guessing kerosene is the fuel used in the giant lighters.
The crews continue starting the fire line up the sides of the “U”, making sure they stay well ahead of the advancing fire. This is quite a sight! Now I understood why the weather conditions are so important. The wind, relative humidity and soil moisture all have to be within certain parameters before the crews would even attempt this, and there had been many last minute cancellations before this burn actually took place because conditions weren’t within the narrow parameters.
Even though the fire was moving into the wind, under control, and at a steady pace, it wasn’t too hard to imagine the power and fury of a wild fire. Pheasants and wild turkeys were being flushed out quite often, and you had to wonder how panicked they were to flee their homes with nothing but the “clothes on their back”.
This is how the prairie looked after the flames died down. Temporarily ugly, this prairie will now thrive and soon become a verdant field of native grasses and wildflowers.
This is a before and after shot taken from the same location; I hope to revisit this spot in a month or so to see how the new growth is coming along. I’m glad I had the opportunity to witness a controlled burn up close, but next time, I think I’ll request the “No Smoking” area.
Thought for the Day: In all things nature, there is something of the marvelous. Aristotle