I got to take a break from the office work and participate in a prairie burn the other afternoon. In fact, the burn took place on Earth Day which I thought was rather fitting.
It is spring. That means it is the accepted time to burn prairie areas. Dry conditions and very windy days have combined to make prescribed burning of native prairie remnants, timber savanna, and planted prairie areas challenging. However, a few county conservation sites are freshly blackened where successful burns were conducted.
The black surface will warm all the more quickly as sun strikes the soil surface and triggers a flush of spring growth. Nutrients tied up in old dead plant tissue are freed by fire and seep into the soil with even small showers where they will be reused by growing plants. Planned, controlled burns can be very beneficial, even essential, for maintaining native ecosystems when properly timed. Poorly planned or tended fires can become destructive wild fires, though. Don't attempt to manage a fire without enough crew and equipment (including water). Be prepared to hold off if the weather service has issued red flag warnings indicating dangerous burning conditions.
Prairie burns under controlled conditions are a great tool in the tool box for grassland management. On the right day, at the right time and with wind slight to calm, an experienced fire crew can properly and safely conduct a burn to improve the vigor of grasses and forbs. Most controlled fires conducted in late March or early April are way ahead of any ground nesting birds that may use the area. Fires burn only the dry top vegetative matter from last year's growth. The new grass growth points are safely tucked away right below ground level. They will soon re-emerge with warming sunlight, rains and longer day lengths. A prairie needs periodic fire to allow the land to remain prairie. The two go together.
Fire is as much a part of the prairie landscape as grass. They evolved together. Before settlement in North America, tallgrass prairie covered 170 million acres from Texas to Canada. Frequent fires, some ignited by lightning or native peoples, maintained grasslands, destroying shrubs and trees except along wetter stream channels. In North America today, less than four percent of the native prairie remains. In Iowa the number is much lower, less than one-tenth of one percent.
So, here we were on a nice, relatively calm afternoon with trucks equipped with radios and water tanks. An ATV with another water tank and our crew with proper fire gear including clothing, rakes, and radios. Adjoining landowners had been notified and finally I made a call to the law enforcement center notifying them of our controlled burn about to take place at Wolf Creek Recreation Area.
The fire was lit in the downwind corner and slowly allowed to burn a blackline west and north. With the conditions, no headfire was lit until well over half of the area had burned. A well placed fire started at the opposite northwest corner quickly consumed the remaining dry vegetation and we were left with the resulting blackened area. A hen pheasant exited the area during the burn, as did a couple cottontail rabbits. As we drove away from the spot, Nick caught a look at a coyote already trotting across the black area, its own legs and belly darker than usual from the ashes.
It was a successful burn on a prairie area that already has benefited from the rains of the past few days adding those released nutrients back into the ground. It was a good day. It was good to get out.