Seventeen years ago, friends of ours moved from their in-town home to a 5 acre property several miles out of town. They built a beautiful prairie-style house and converted 4 acres of their alfalfa field front yard into a mixed prairie like it was 200 years ago. Native grasses, wildflowers, and trees were planted and a small pond was formed. The plantings grew well in the rich Iowa soil. Wildlife returned. Bird species grew in number. Kestrels nested in the box above the open space. Waterfowl visited the pond. They kept paths mowed to allow easy access to parts of the prairie visible in this satellite view.
Only one thing was missing from their prairie. They needed a fire. Much dry vegetation was on the ground built up from years of growth. Certain desirable native species were crowded out by less welcome grasses or weeds. They hired a crew to burn off the dead vegetation. The burn must be a carefully controlled prescribed fire carried out by an experienced team. Fire was a natural and essential event on the prairies in the past. A thorough discussion of prairie burns can be found at The Prairie Ecologist. The author, Chris Helzer, is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska.
Before the burn was started, I stood next to the house in the image above and recorded video of the scene toward the south, then panned around to the west and northwest. It was a calm day with gentle breeze in the direction of the pond.
The fire team of four arrived in the late afternoon and walked around the property to assess their strategy. You don’t just toss a match and hope for the best. That is how prairie burns get out of control. There is a procedure used to keep the fire under control.
Two of the fire crew walked the mowed paths while one of our friends followed behind. The paths broke the large acreage into smaller more easily managed plots. The workers were glad to see that.
Safety and control of the fire are most important. Small fires are set at the most downwind part of a plot of prairie to be burned. That forces the fire to slowly burn upwind. Workers monitor those back fires while it clears several yards of litter fuel from the plot. The most downwind of the plots were treated with back fires near the road (left in first image), close to the pond, and in the plots along the south of their property where another house stood (bottom of first image). Neighbors and the local fire department were all advised of the operation. Click images for more detailed views.
Small trees near the first back fire above were carefully watched to avoid damage to them. More back fires were soon set to the left of these. I moved to a different vantage point.
Fires Set Upwind
Once the back fires had done their work of clearing fuel, fires were set in the upwind part of the plots. These fires moved quickly and burned very hot. This worker moved across not far from the house setting a long fire line. Below that video is another showing a broader view of the flames at different stages of the upwind burns.
At times smoke from smoldering ashes nearly blocked out the sun. The wind carried the smoke over the pond and away from any houses.
The Final Result
Five days later, after some rain and light snow, the weather cleared to bright sunshine. Our friends went to the road for this picture. It won’t be long before new plants emerge from the ashes. They are expecting an abundance of new grasses and wildflowers. Maybe a follow-up photograph will be added here later in the summer.
The prairie after nearly 4 months with some re-seeding.
Prairie Fires Can Be Bad
In the days following this burn above, the state of Oklahoma had an outbreak of fires that swept across large areas destroying property and taking lives. Here is an NBC News video from 16 April.