Friday, April 23, 2010

The Prairie Fire

Prairie thrives on fire!

An unburned prairie collects scrub trees and brambles like my dog gathers ticks.

Time to clean up that prairie with a good, healthy burn!

A prairie is like an upside down rain-forest.
But where a rainforest stores all of it's solar energy in the leaves of the canopy, the prairie stores all of its energy deep underground in the most amazing root system.

You burn a rain forest, the soil is thin and can only be grazed a couple of years before it is exhausted.

You burn a prairie, it rejoices!

The energy from those roots shoots out into the sun, warmed by the ash-blackened soil.

Flowers and grasses burst forth within weeks of a good prairie burn.

So we plan our burn.

Fire, the inventor of civilization, is still untamed itself.
We have to outwit it.

Tom mowed wide paths all around the 6 acres we were going to burn.

Fire needs fuel.
If there is no grass or wood to consume, the fire just stops on its tracks.
At least that's the theory.

So we surrounded the burn area with unburnable trails.

Even so, fire sometimes leaps its boundaries and takes off with the speed of summer lightning.

Hence the need for volunteers with backpacks full of water...

...and these dandy "flappers".

Kent, our Fish and Wildlife biologist, came to demonstrate the equipment.

You don't beat a fire with a flapper he explained. That just fans the flames.

You gently mop it along the ground.

But the best way to use the flapper is this... just lean on it.
Cause if you burn it right, nothing exciting is going to happen.

He started the flame.

It crackled and simmered like the kindling in your fireplace.

Slowly it spread out pushing against the wind.

You always burn a strip where the wind will push the fire towards the fire break.
Once that area is black it is safe from burning again.
In the book, The Big Burn, one ranger saved his crew by running them straight into the fire where the black ash of burned land provided safety.

Kent showed us how to lay the first fire line.

Once that had burned we could set fire upwind and let it burn wildly trusting it would stop at the blackened strip - hoping Kent knew what he was doing.

He let our neighbor Lee Ann set the next strip afire.

The flames set off to the south - to the firebreak.

It sizzled and crackled setting the air waving with heat.

The brush patch in the middle burst when the flames hit.

A rabbit leapt out and escaped into the woods.

At times the heat would cause a swirling air pattern creating a funnel cloud up to thirty feet tall carrying ash and soot high into the air.

Listen, Tom said - It sounds like its burning in the woods.
It was the oddest sensation.
The crackling of the flames was echoing off of the trees.
You would swear there was fire back there.

Tom set the next fire and it swept across the remaining prairie like a galloping horse.

I was glad I didn't have to outrun the flames.

Now it was my turn on the lower prairie.
You hold the drip torch upside down, get the wick on fire and drip fire onto the grasses.
Once you start, you walk quickly.
That way your shoes don't catch on fire.


This stretch came close to my crabapple trees.

Tom and Kent worked diligently with our sprayers and flappers to keep the flames from my flowering trees.

At this point we were joined by a new volunteer, Seanman.

I'm not sure how much help he was, but he cheered us on.

Time to finish the burn...

Lee Ann was mopping up along the South fence.
Kent ran the fire along the low western edge with the big pine trees.

Then he carried the fire along the north edge up to the top of the ridge.

As soon as the flames started, a big wind rose pushing the fire higher and higher.

Flames encircled my big oak tree on swingset hill.
Kent charged into the fire to water down the tree shielding his face from the radiant heat with his hand,

A wall of flames and smoke filled the air bearing down on the South fence.

Where was Lee Ann?
I couldn't see her! Could she get trapped by the flames against the fence?
I peered into the smoke, my eyes watering.
No use yelling. The sound of the fire filled our ears.

Finally... yes!

Down by the pine trees - there was Lee Ann safe and sound.

And as quickly as it started, the flames died down.
Our field was left a smoking landscape, almost eery... lifeless, quiet and empty.

Time for a quick kiss for a job well done.

Yesterday the prairie was brown, thick with old grasses.

Today after the red beast passed through, it lay black with ash.

What will it look like 4 weeks from today?

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