Prairie Burn | 12 April 2018 (+4 mo update)

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.

Recent year Google Maps view. Pond lower left. House upper right.

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.

Back Fires

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.

16 April 2018

The prairie after nearly 4 months with some re-seeding.

1 Aug 2018

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.


18 thoughts on “Prairie Burn | 12 April 2018 (+4 mo update)

  1. Jan

    We just got in from an hour or so of trimming brushy shrubs out of our burned areas. This will take a number of days to complete. 25# of prairie seed arrived today, so we should get it seeded within the next week.


  2. Doug & Jan Herman

    Nice prairie burn Jan! We are anxious to come out for a look once new flora start to show up.
    Doug & Jan

  3. zeil16

    We do prescribed burns on our North-Florida wooded property. Love it, although it definitively is work. Keeps the understory from getting too crowded and maintains a good gap to the tree crowns. That way an unplanned fire is less likely to develop into a devastating crown fire. Good fires prevent bad fires. The woods look much better too, once you have learned what a healthy forest looks like. And a burn early in the year leads to an abundance of wildflowers by the end of the summer.

    1. Jim R Post author

      I couldn’t agree with you more. We have a friend who is a forester. He walks wooded areas assessing them for harvest etc. He has examples of where careful burn management has led to a very healthy forest and undergrowth.

      Thank you for your comments and hard work.

    1. Jim R Post author

      Done properly, they are safe and useful. If they get out of hand, that is a very different outcome. Thank you for commenting.

  4. Eliza Waters

    Great post, Jim. A controlled burn is preferable to uncontrolled, certainly, and we now know that fire helps keep many wild habitats healthy and in balance. Hope you give us updates on the grassland here.

  5. shoreacres

    That after-burn photo is just beautiful. When I took fire training here, it was fascinating to learn about the various techniques that help to pull off something like this safely. Even here in the Houston area, there are multiple burns every year in the urban pocket prairies. There’s almost no room for error with those, but people know what they’re doing. The last one I saw was on the University of Houston/Clear Lake campus, and the procedure worked just as well there as on open prairie. The plants are coming back thick and fast.

  6. melissabluefineart

    I really enjoyed this post. It takes me back to when I was very young and participated in prescribed fire in the Peoria area. I commend you friends on their fine home and landscaping!


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