Spring Burn

(Deb) OK, so the other day I was driving to Lincoln, for Lincoln Days. So it was a couple of weeks ago. And I passed a pasture that’s on fire and so I immediately stop and get out to take pictures cause it’s the first burn I had seen this Spring. So, there was a guy in his pickup there and I said, “I just wanted to take a picture.” And he said, “Yep, fine.” So in a few minutes he comes back by and he says, “You want to get closer? ” (Deb) And I’m like, “Yea!” So, I hop in. So, these guys are Fire for Hire and so they do Spring burns for people. And if you are from Kansas, it’s burning season and as you go down through the Flint Hills especially you have to watch for the fires and everything. But there’s a whole science and art. And some photographers and painters have done some wonderful things with those scenes. And the burns have been going on forever and it’s just a really cool topic. (Frank) Well when the Native Americans they burned the prairies on purpose so that then the tallgrass would come back up and the buffalo of course, would return. (Deb) Yea. (Frank) And feed and what have you. Now the thing is though is I’m one of the complainers. OK? Because here in eastern Kansas especially in the Spring and this time of the year, the wind is mostly from the southwest. So, when they start the burns in the Flint Hills, we get the smoke. And me being one of those guys with allergies, I’m like, “Oh gee! Here we go again.” Anyway, but I know you have to do it and it is ecologically something that you do. (Deb) Yea. So, we have to live with it. (Deb) So despite Frank’s whining we’re going to take a look at the Spring burn in Kansas. (Frank) I will be wearing a mask from now on. (Deb) Stay with us. In Kansas, it’s not the robin that is the messenger of spring, it’s the torch. I headed west along Highway 18, probably nearing Bennington, when a cloud of smoke began growing in the sky to the south. It was the first burn I had seen this season and I pulled over to take pictures. I said hello to the young man who appeared to be supervising and told him I just wanted to snap a few pictures. He said sure and drove to the other side of the field. Just a couple of minutes later, he was back. “Want to get closer?” he asked. I jumped in the cab. Nathan Brunner is a partner with his uncle, Leonard Jirak, in Fire 4 Hire, a company that does prescribed burns for cleaning and revitalizing pastures, crops, and native grasses. I had caught them on their third burn of the season and they have dozens more scheduled. The prairies have been set fire for thousands of years, by natural causes like lighting, by the Plains tribes who lived here, by farmers and ranchers. Prairie grass seeds have not only adapted to fire, they’ve actually evolved to benefit from it. The fire helps remove dead plant material enabling prairie grass seeds to more easily find their way down to the soil. A prairie fire also eliminates competition from other plants that might take nutrients and resources from fledgling prairie grasses, like the cedars you see taking over some pastures. Tradition has dictated a controlled burn during the spring when humidity and moisture levels are just right. It is also thought that the charred, blackened debris helps to capture heat from the sun, which tends to warm the soil more quickly. This is a catalyst for accelerating the germination of new prairie grass seeds during spring months. The science of the prescribed burn has become more sophisticated. Red Dragon Torches and Equipment in Lacrosse manufactures the propane torches used by folks in the burns, making it much easier to control. The billowing smoke and short, rapid flames are mesmerizing, and Nathan commented about the winds and updrafts created by the fires. Sometimes, he said, a little tornado actually forms. With such destructive forces in play, it is little wonder that lots of folks are hiring their burns.