Fire at Bear Creek: A controlled burn to assist in prairie restoration
By Ben Gruber
Saturday, April 8, was dry and windy with low relative humidity (RH) and a strong south wind. The DNR suspended all burning permits in its administrative area for the day. Bear Creek Ranch — also known as the Gruber farm — does not fall within the DNR’s jurisdiction, so that would not apply to me, but for the sake of my neighbors, I held off on my planned prairie burn but not for long though.
I, along with a few younger friends I recruited for the hard work, started lighting backing fires on my southern-most section of prairie grasses at 9 p.m. When it comes to burning prairie in the middle of the night, it is awfully nice to have friends, especially young and energetic ones that are members of a wild land fire crew. Thanks, Buck, Fish, and Tori for the late-night help.
Once the RH rises, small lightweight fuels — like my grasses — take up that moisture, and the risk of extreme fire behavior decreases significantly. So Saturday night until 11:30 p.m., there the four of us were with headlamps and drip torches lighting fires and then using backpack sprayers to put out spot fires.
We did not light any big fires that night. Mostly we “burned out the lines,” meaning we used fire to create a firebreak by burning out the fuel with small, controlled fires. Then April 9, once the RH decreased with the heat of the day, we burned up the flanks, or sides, of the fire until we had sufficient “black:” the place that has been burned and has no fuel remaining.
With that complete, we used drip torches to drop a line of flaming torch fuel across the entire upwind side of the burn unit and created a “head fire.” The head fire is the one you want to stay out of its path.
On the backing fires and the flanks, we are able to work within arms’ reach of the flames, but the head fire was too hot to be within yards. Even that far back, at times we found ourselves turning our backs to the flames and crouching down near the ground when a wind shift would push the heat in our direction. My eyes would start to water and burn; my mouth would get dry from the heated air; and, even with a hood over my face, I managed to singe off some of my beard.
All in all, it was a successful burn weekend. I have roughly 40 acres to burn off, and we managed to burn 12 of them. We were pretty conservative, though, with the dry conditions on Saturday.
Of those 40 acres, 12 of them are slated for some form of prairie restoration this year.
Working with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service, we are planting 3 acres of specific native plants attractive to pollinators. Another 9 acres are being restored to a mix of native grasses and forbs, which will also appeal to pollinators and wildlife.
Pollinator habitat is a high priority right now, hoping to turn the tides of the rapid decline in populations of these important critters. A pollinator is every bit as important as a farmer when it comes to the food on your table.
Both of these land pieces will be getting regular burns in the future. Regular burning will suppress weeds and cool season grasses that can outcompete the natives we are trying to re-establish.
Controlled burning is a powerful and effective tool, especially beneficial to native species. This land historically would burn relatively frequently, so we use fire now in a (hopefully) controlled fashion to accomplish the same goals.
A word of caution though: Do not start lighting stuff on fire if you do not know what you are doing.
Ben Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.