Prairie Fires – Cleansing the Midwestern Landscape

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Fire has played an instrumental role in affecting many of the prairies in the Midwest.

Historically, tall grass prairies are shaped by one of three types of disturbances;

  • Drought
  • Animal grazing
  • Wildfires

There are many misconceptions that if the prairie (or other natural area) was left alone, it would revert to native. In the absence of disturbance, prairies often revert to either poor quality grasslands or thorn woodlands.

Native American Indians were keen on this information, observing what Mother Nature did naturally to herself to cleanse her skin, fire. They learned that fire removed the thorny brush, which gave access to animals and hunters alike. The open areas were also available to grazing animals and native plants that equal medical supplies and food to the Indians.

Many people aren’t happy about the burning that takes place in our area. They state they have allergies and the smoke drives them from their homes. Prescription burns are actually quite predictable and knowledgeable burn coordinators can adapt during the small percentages of uncertainty and plan accordingly so smoke avoids entering inhabited areas. A prescription burn coordinator is required to know the ecology, natural history, fire behavior, fire effects, and suppression techniques for the area.

I have a degree in Natural Areas Management and have been trained by the Chicago Wilderness Group as a Burn Crew Member. I’ve only enjoyed the privilege of three burns in my career, but I’ve always had pyro tendencies… Remember, I’ve had chemistry sets since a young age. Mom only let me play out in the yard, to keep the explosions/fires/mess outdoors. I didn’t think there was a profession that actually paid you to start fires… If I had the opportunity to do this full time, I would!

A brief description of how a burn takes place from planning to completion:

  • An area is chosen to burn
  • Timing (spring or fall)
  • Management goals and existing conditions are recorded
  • Plan is implemented, permits pulled, municipalities informed
  • When correct weather patterns are predicted, which include; moisture levels, wind, load levels (how much is expected to burn)
  • Crew availability
  • Burn takes place
  • Area is monitored and information recorded for future management goals.

Simply, to describe what happens during burn, there are two general jobs on the crew, excluding management; the fire starters and the fire stoppers called ‘moppers’. Everyone on the burn crew gets a job, equipment related to the job and who to report to, or the ‘Buddy System’. Burns can be conducted with a very small crew, however my county sends emails to prospective certified burn members that can volunteer for the day to help. Barely a burn goes by without at least a few volunteers.

Fire starters receive a fuel-dripping type device to start the fire. Generally, the LEAST experienced crew member gets this job, as this job has the least chance to screw-up. I guess the crew member could fail to start the fire… But, it’s stopping the fire that is the hard part. Fire starters start their burning in the pattern that has been determined to work for the area. Depending on the terrain and firebreak options (rivers, roads, mountains, already burned areas, etc.) most burns either burn into themselves, i.e. burn the edges first and the fire burns itself inward towards the center or it can end at the respective firebreak.

The burn needs to be monitored and managed. Most of the time tall grass prairie fire is only a couple of feet high, just creeping along at a slow walk, other times (cattails especially) the flames can leap two stories high.

The mopper’s equipment can consists of either a backpack tank of water, rakes, or ‘a-mudflap-on-a-stick’. Most likely, I don’t need to explain the water-tank or the rake… The mudflap-on-a-stick is exactly what you are envisioning. It is used to blot the fire out along the fire line. There is a technique in using this piece of equipment. Slapping it down causes a gust of air and fans the fire, obviously not the desired outcome. The flap should be placed on the fire line (the burning foliage) and dabbed along to snuff it out. Fire is more delicate than some think, if one of the three ingredients for fire is removed (air, fuel, spark), no more fire.

During the fire, there is one hard fast rule of safety. STAY IN THE BLACK! The BLACK is the already burned areas. Fire can’t go where there is no fuel.

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I’d love to develop a cologne called, ‘Campfire’. I looove that smell. =-)

© Ilex Farrell ~ Midwestern Plant Girl

16 thoughts on “Prairie Fires – Cleansing the Midwestern Landscape

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    • I could certainly write a follow-up post on this. Is there any particular part you’d like me to elaborate on? Reasons for burning, conditions for burning and more specific techniques can certainly be discussed. Thanks for commenting!!

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