Our Education Facilitator and Naturalist, Jan Aiels, helped with a prairie burn last week. Here are some of her thoughts:
It was a perfect fall day. Prairie grasses were bowing to a gentle west breeze under clear deep blue skies. The delicate frost that coated the grasses overnight was gone. Our mission was to burn a section of the Nature Center’s prairie to increase the diversity of forbs. Fall burns encourage wildflowers. As I entered the prairie along Otis Road, two mature redtail hawks soared overhead in a spiraling duet over the landscape. I wondered if they were the same pair that have spent many past winters here. Beneath the hawks, oak- covered hills were painted in a mosaic of subtle russets that only nature can achieve. A perfect day for a restoring fire.
Prairie fires are both fascinating and frightening. Jean was instructing our crew of volunteers on the burn plan for the day and reviewing safety. Everyone understood the plan and we went to our assigned posts with rakes, flappers and water tanks ready for the back burn into the wind. Each was wearing clothing of cotton or wool. Only natural fibers allowed, no synthetics that melt! The match was put to the grass sending the first wisps of smoke to the fire gods. Everyone stood by waiting for action. But action was slow. The back burn took forever leaving an impatient person like me leaning on my rake mumbling about boring burns. Boring burns are good burns! Patches of grass refused to burn. Good because that left areas unburned for invertebrates. During the fire mice, voles and other small creatures retreat underground. Deer and other mammals in the grasses slowly move away from the burn area and cross green mown fire breaks to safety. There are no frantic fleeing masses of wildlife with flames licking their heels as portrayed in the Bambi movies we saw as children.
The sound of the fire is most memorable. It creates its own wind that roars as it bursts through dense grasses. Plumes of smoke rise skyward changing the color of the sun the shines through them. Fires talk. Pops and crackles sound like gun shots as they echo from the wooded hills bordering the area. Roars occur as flames race in front of a wind. Afterward, smoke creates a surreal landscape of blackened soil. It looks desolate and dead. But it is not. Minutes after flames subsided voles had emerged to scurry about on the soil surface. They will move into one of the many unburned areas to find food. Plant stalks untouched by flame stood throughout the burn. Winter winds will bend and bounce them to shake seeds onto the waiting soil. The stalks harbor eggs and pupa of next summer’s insect life.
Today it is raining. Rain soaks the nutrient-filled ash into the soil for thirsty grass and flower roots to absorb. Within a week or so, green will appear as roots send up new growth. It is amazing how quickly this happens. Fires breathe life into prairie ecosystems. And a day of burning breathes life into my soul as I enjoy being part of the restoration of this magnificent habitat.
Filmmaker Kevin Railsback was on site during the prairie burn and shot some beautiful video. See it here.