On October 23rd, we completed an 80-acre prescribed burn on Crane Trust property. Turning the grassland black and creating a smokey sky. Prescribed burns are controlled fires that are lit to fulfill some kind of land management goal. At the Crane Trust, we burn to reduce litter and woody plant species, promote diversity, and mimic the natural interval at which fire ravaged the landscape. The goal of this fire was to open up the landscape for cranes and other bird species while ridding a restored slough of woody plant species. Without controlled burns ecosystem health would suffer, wildfires would be more likely, and we would not be able to manage the landscape as naturally without it.
Burns are important for ecosystem health, wildfire prevention, and land management. Fire is destructive, but also provides much-needed rejuvenation on the landscape. This reset releases nutrients from dead plant material back into the soil allowing fire-adapted plant life to take off and regrow quickly. Fire levels the playing field for the next regrowth of prairie plants. In this part of the Great Plains wildfires used to occur every three to six years, but since we have suppressed them they happen less often. To maintain natural fire cycles we now have to start them ourselves. Prescribed fires mimic natural processes by burning large portions of the prairie, creating a patchy network of grazed, rested, and burned areas; exactly what we need to accommodate all the wildlife and plants on our property.
When planning a burn, the Crane Trust determines which areas are ready to be burned and fully prepares for one area at a time. Fire prep starts months before fire hits the prairie. Wide shortly mowed, or hayed, areas of vegetation serve as “fire breaks” around our burn area. Without a “fire break”, we could not prevent igniting a wildfire. A burn plan is also created and contains a framework using who, what, where, when, why, and how to ensure safety and create a clear process. Having all of this information written out ensures that every action is calculated to prevent mistakes and protect against liabilities. Some variables are out of our control (like relative humidity, precipitation, temperature, wind speed, variability, and direction), but we will burn another day if conditions are unsafe. A perfect day to burn has a relative humidity between 25 and 80 percent, no precipitation, a temperature that is not so high that fire behavior will be extreme, and a stable 10-15 mph wind blowing in a consistent direction. Once a framework is built our team can organize and prepare for burn day.
Positions with specific jobs are given to crew members. The six positions we filled for two teams were burn boss, team lead, igniter, wet liner, mop-up, and fire watcher. (1)The burn boss plans for, implements, and supervises the crew. (2)The Lead leads a team in the pursuit of completing a particular task. (3)The igniter lights the prescribed fire. (4)A wet line creates a “wet line” by spraying water on vegetation along the parameter of the burn area. (5) Mop-up extinguishes or removes burning material from along burn lines. (6)The fire watcher watches the burn area to prevent embers from starting wildfires and make sure the fire is completely done before leaving. After our teams were assembled we could finally start preparing equipment for burn day.
Trucks and ATVs were outfitted with water tanks and sprayers, drip torches were filled with fuel, and PPE (personal protective equipment) was organized. PPE includes pants, long-sleeved shirts, gloves, eye protection, close-toed shoes, a hard hat, radios, and a backpack filled with a fire shelter, water, and maybe a snack or two. Now that everything is assembled we could get to work.
Lighting the Prescribed Fire
To begin, a test fire is lit and observed. We watch to make sure that the fire is behaving how we need it to and that the smoke is not headed directly for major roadways and neighbors' houses. If the fire and smoke were not behaving how we liked, then we would extinguish any fire and complete the burn another day. Once conditions were suitable for a successful burn both burn teams began lighting. Starting on the north end we burned a strip along the river called a backfire, which burns against the wind. This starts at the bottom of our U-shaped barrier. Each team then headed south on either side of the backfire, lighting the flank fires, or the two vertically extending lines of the soon-to-be black U-shaped barrier. We set fire to the edge and sprayed the outer side of the burn zone with water as we walked. After about 30ish paces a crew member with a drip torch would walk straight into the edge of the burn zone. Burning away dry vegetation and creating a fuel-less band around the edges of our area. This chunk of Martin’s Meadows was south of the Platte River and surrounded by prairie and cropland on all other sides, so creating this barrier was crucial to maintaining control of the fire. In the southeast corner, there were some cottonwood trees, a picnic table, and a solar panel. These are all areas we would have to be careful of while burning. Small sections were carefully burned around these objects as they were sprayed down with water to prevent any damage. This extra space protected these objects from the next step, lighting the head fire. The open, unburned portion of the U was left unlit until the end since the wind was blowing towards the river (from the South). Once the head fire was lit, we had completed most of the work and were in the monitoring phase of the burn. We all watched the fire until it calmed down. Then our fire watchers stayed back to drive around the burn, watch for any unwanted fire, and be prepared to spray at a moment's notice.
Thank you to everyone involved in making this prescribed burn possible and successful! Below are our teams and the positions filled by our crew members.
Tim Smith- Lead/Mop Up/Fire Watcher
Stu Dethloff- Igniter
Adam Driver- Mop Up
Gary Sitzman- Wet Line
Dave Baasch- Wet Line
Bruce Winter- Igniter
Johnny Graham- Burn Boss
Garret Uecher- Lead
Josh Wiese- Igniter
Mallory Beckmann- Igniter/Fire Watcher
Jessica Bolser- Wet Line
Megan Soldatke- Observer
See you in the next blog!
Saunders Conservation Fellow