Fire on the Tallgrass Prairie

by Kathy Larson

photos by Kathy Larson and Joe Coffey

On March 16, I watched the eastern half of the Frontier prairie go up in flames.  This part of the prairie hadn’t been burned for seven or eight years and the plant litter was thick, so the fire burned hot and fast.

Fire has been important to maintaining the prairie that covers the Midwest since before the arrival of settlers.  Native prairie grasses and flowering plants carry the buds for next year’s growth underground where they are protected from fire.  The buds of trees are above ground where they’re easily damaged or killed by fire.  Young trees and seedlings are killed by fire.

Fire also helps rid the prairie of the build-up of heavy plant litter which can smother or shade other plants.  Burning opens up the land to sun and rains and returns nutrients back to the soil.

Our local fire department volunteers are our prairie burn heroes.  They take the opportunity to practice handling grass fires by conducting a controlled burn of our prairie.  For us, it’s assurance that the fire won’t get out of control.

The day was perfect for the burn: sunny, warm and breezy.  While we didn’t want a strong wind, the 10-mph wind out of the south was perfect to help hurry the flames along.

The burn began with a water truck driving around parts of the perimeter and wetting down trees and bushes that were close to the prairie.

The firefighters then started a back fire on the north side of the prairie using a small drip torch.

The back fire burned more slowly because it was burning into the wind.  It created a burned area that would corral the main fire.

The firefighters left an opening in the backburn to provide exits for wildlife. We saw pheasants, rabbits, snakes, mice and many red-winged blackbirds moving to the unburned section of prairie.  We always burn our prairie in alternate years to leave nesting sites for the prairie wildlife.

As the backburn started to die out, another was started on the lower east and west sides of the prairie.  The east burn came up over a small hill, and catching the wind, began to turn hot and strong with flames shooting up into the air.  It was our first sight of the strength and ferocity of a prairie fire.

The final phase of the burn came when the rest of the east side and the south sides were set on fire.

If all went well, the fire would burn the rest of the way across the prairie and end at the small pond.  I walked to the pond to watch the approach of the fire.  As it came over the ridge the sound was loud and a bit frightening.  Flames were 20 feet high and the fire was advancing very fast.  I looked up from my camera and it suddenly seemed that it would overwhelm me and my small pond area refuge.

Not to worry, though. Minutes later it was all but over and lingering smoke and the ashes of the dead foliage puffed across the blackened prairie.

Five days after the burn, the blackened prairie is already turning green.  Helped along by rain and warm temperatures, the benefits of fire can quickly be seen as newly exposed soil hastens the emergence of plants.

Next month we’ll look at what’s coming up — in both the burned and unburned portions of the prairie –and we’ll see how they compare.

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