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Burn, Baby, Burn!

Posted by kevinwolz on April 15, 2010

Last Saturday, I spent six hours helping conduct the last prescribed burn of the season in our area. This was only my second burn experience ever and my first where I was directly involved in the entire process. The burn took place on a 2.5 acre prairie (not the highest quality—mostly grasses, with an unfortunate amount of the invasive demon: Reed Canary Grass) that is used for research by the University.  Not only was this a great learning experience (the second thing completely crossed off my list!), but it was quite a visual one as well!

Now for some explanation:

Why do we burn prairies? It may seem contradictory at first, but in fact, prairies LOVE fire! The entire prairie ecosystem has evolved since its creation following the last ice age to depend on fire as an essential part of its natural cycle. Before we showed up, fire was primarily started by both lightning and Native Americans (although there is some dispute over which of these factors dominates). In modern times, fire has been suppressed due to sprawl and lack of awareness, consequently decreasing ecosystem health. There are three main ways that fire helps the prairie ecosystem:

  1. Fire returns nutrients from the standing crop back to the soil.
  2. Fire directly influences the life cycles of many native plants (e.g. some plants need fire to break open their seeds before they are able to germinate)
  3. Fire suppresses encroaching woody plants that don’t like fire (especially invasive species)

The "Black Line"

How do we burn prairies? The overall process is actually quite simple, but accurate judgement is essential to prevent runaways and other accidents. The main principle employed is that fire won’t burn what has already been burnt. So, the first thing we do is burn a wide buffer strip (12-15 feet in this case) around the designated area. This is done in small chunks and kept under control with water sprayers and “flappers.” Burning the perimeter takes the majority of the day (4 hours in this case). Then, we light strips of the prairie straight across, perpendicular to the wind (shown in the video). The wind caries this fire straight to the down wind black line, where the fire stops (hopefully). This step happens in just minutes. A lot more logistics are involved, but that’s essentially it!

Burning the Black Line

Light it UP

Under Control

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