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Monday, April 14, 2014

Prairie Fires

It is April and in Kansas on the prairies that means that this grass is starting to green up and...

Ranchers are lighting it up.

My Father-in-law is usually my partner in lighting fires and putting them out. 
This is not something we take lightly.  We go fully prepared to take care of things if the wind or other factors change the fire plan.
Every well planned fire has a "Fire Boss" which is usually The Farmer on our place.
He has lots of jobs:
  • Makes sure the neighbors are notified that we will be burning around them.
  • Makes sure the local fire department has been notified, so they don't come to try put it out.
  • Checks the hourly weather forecast for predicted wind direction changes.
  • Makes sure all the equipment is ready to work when needed.
  • He organizes the crew and tells us where to start, which direction we are going, where we are going to meet at. 


Why Do Ranchers Burn?

There are lots of brushy plants and weeds that can be controlled with fire.  The evergreen trees are called Eastern Red Cedar.  In the above picture, you can see lots of trees.  They are an invasive species and overtake many pastures.  They can be killed with herbicide or by cutting them down, but the most cost effective way is to burn them. 

They make a lot of black smoke when they burn.  The needles have a high oil content and once they start to burn, the tree is quickly engulfed in flames.

There are other "weeds" that fire controls for us and it gives the cattle lush green grass to eat without all the dead grass.
Even though things are greening up, these fires can get very hot and very big very quickly.

We spend most of the burn time setting what is called a back fire or back burn.  Usually, I spread the fire along and my father in law follows me to put out the side of the fire that we want stopped.  This fire is set so the fire is moving into the wind, so it moves very slowly.

When the "head fire" arrives, it has nothing to burn and no where to go.
Did you know that dried cow patties can smolder and burn for hours.  These wonderful bits of fertilizer cause us more trouble each year than anything else when they smolder close to the edge of what has not burned.
After a fire, things are very black, very smoky and very hazy.
I seem to spend quite a bit of time enjoying the sunshine and warm weather.  We wait a lot on the fire boss while he is setting fire after we set the back fire.  Or yesterday, I sat and watched a tree that was on fire at the edge of the burned area while the guys continued on.  Lots of waiting and it is all in the name of safety.

Here is a picture where we stopped the fire and you can see the difference between what was burned and not burned.

This cedar tree won't cause the neighbor any more trouble.  It is pretty awesome to see a 15 foot tree killed with the strike of a match.
We try to burn our pastures when the trees are a little smaller.  It is easier to catch the entire tree on fire and kill it.

Less than a week later we will start to see the green grass coming back and peaking through the black ashes.

The Native Americans that used to live here, used fire as a way to get green grass and attract the buffalo herds.  Natural lightning strikes caused fires long before they used fire and the herds naturally go to where the greener grass is located.
I just love to watch a pasture green up after the fire has swept across it and removed the dead trees, living cedar trees and dead grass.  It is a sign of renewed hope, a new year and better things to come.
Check out this video Derek Klingenberg captured when burning in the Flint Hills with a Firenado.  It really shows how quickly things can change.

-A Kansas Farm Mom