Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Death and Transfiguration

We have again passed the high holy days where we undergo the purifying rituals of renewal and celebrate death and resurrection. I am speaking, of course, of the annual prairie burn, which happened yesterday at Bluff Spring Fen. (What, did you think I was talking about a different holiday?) As I have mentioned her before, prairies are fire-dominated ecosystems. Without periodic fires, invasive shrubs and trees move in and shade out the native plant communities. Other organisms, like insects, that depend on these communities to survive also vanish.

In my holiday finery

Each spring, the stewards of Bluff Spring Fen don our holiday vestments, which in this case means fire-retardant Nomex jumpsuits and preform prescribed burning on the site. We use a drip torch, a canister of fuel designed to drip flaming drops of liquid to start the fire. The flames are controlled by water backpacks with spray nozzles, and flappers, which are squares of flexible rubber on rake handles.

Part of the work crew. Sue (facing away from the camera) is wearing a water backpack.

Me with flapper. Does this Nomex make me look fat?

We carefully burn a perimeter around the downwind side of the area we plan to burn. The flames burn slowly into the wind, and we extinguish the edge of the fire that wants to burn with the wind. This creates a fuel-free black zone that the fire can’t carry through. They we go to the upwind side of the area that we want to burn, start the fire, and let ‘er rip.

Steve uses the drip torch to start the burn perimeter.

The fire that follows can be quite dramatic. In the picture below, we are burning through a cattail marsh. The highest flames are reaching about 40 feet off of the ground. The column of smoke that we produced could be seen 10 miles away.

A 40-foot high wall of flame advances through the cattail marsh.

Following the fire, the prairie looks blackened and lifeless. But this isn’t the case. Prairie plants evolved with the influence of fire. They are deep rooted species, and will sprout vigorously from the underground parts in the weeks following the burn. I’ll try to follow up with some photo documentation of the greening up of the burned areas over the next few weeks.

Scorched earth- and the promise of a new growing season

Despite difficult conditions for burning this year (it’s been a very wet spring), we got a good burn in yesterday, and I look forward to a beautiful growing season at the Fen this coming year.

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At 13:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite snappy in your holiday clothes!

White Tanks: 303 and Olive - take Olive west, into the park. Hike the Goat Camp Trail - very nice hike!

Take care,

At 18:46, Anonymous Lemuel said...

In my home area the "old" farmers used to burn their fields - usually carefully and without incident.

At 19:20, Blogger Ur-spo said...

well that beats easter brunch and chocolate rabbits!
It looks intriguing to do; in a destructive way - is it purging?
it does look satisfying to do!

At 11:09, Blogger robin andrea said...

Great prairie fire and wonderful commentary. I've just been exploring your site and enjoying it very much. I'll be back to see what's up in the heartland.

Thanks so much for stopping by the Dharma Bums today and pointing out that the hawk's prey is really a snake. That makes so much more sense. I've changed the post.

At 21:27, Blogger roger said...

nice blog. nature and cooking. my kinda stuff. very well done piece here on the burning. from your post back a ways.....go with the chainsaw. you could even do a lot of damage to those trees with a hand powered, very sharp bowsaw. i recall many years ago, possibly inaccurately, using some sort of vegetable rennet to curdle cheese. apples may have been involved.

At 07:56, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Robin Andrea and Roger,

Thanks for stopping by. I discovered your blog as a link from Taming of the Band Aid, which I now don't remember how I stumbled on. I've been poking around your archives and enjoying the writing and photos.

At 13:01, Anonymous Mark said...

Ambitious stuff for city boys, eh? I DO remember burning some fields as a kid with Dad's renting the flame-machine....but it wasn't for the rescue of the environment. What a day! Take a pic in a month of that Fen and let's see it. That will be the payback.

At 12:39, Blogger rodger said...

We need to find you a decent belt and and a bag to match that jumpsuit. Maybe a nice pair of pumps too!

That wall of fire is dramatic!

At 12:51, Blogger Doug Taron said...


Mustard yellow is so hard to accessorize.

The photo doesn't even come close to capturing how dramatic the wall of fire was. I've been burning for 20 years now, and we've never had something that amazing. That part of the fire was especially satisfying because, despite the drama, it burned everyting that we wanted and only what we wanted.


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