Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Flaming Success!!!

The day following my last blog entries (in other words, Wednesday, April 2), we decided to try again to burn the back 5 acres. This time we had the expert help and guidance of Brad Guhr from Dyck Arboretum in Hesston...

and a little more wind...

and a lot less moisture in the air.

This trio of changed circumstances was evidently the key. In about the same amount of time that it took us to burn a tiny corner of the pasture on the prior Saturday, we were able to burn the entire 5 acres. And despite a few anxiety-inducing moments when I watched Prairiewolf, as keeper of the fire, get a little too cavalier about the location of the drip torch in relationship to his pant legs for my taste, the burn went off safely and with remarkably little adrenaline involved.

Since the wind was from almost exactly the same direction as on the prior weekend, we were able to start the backfire in the same location as before, building on what we'd already accomplished. It was almost immediately obvious that this fire was going to be quite different from our earlier attempt!

We took it slow and actually ended up burning much of the field as a backfire. Given the long, narrow shape of the plot, that seemed the safest alternative. The photo above is of the backfire as it engulfed, then passed, a red cedar.

Once we were absolutely sure that the flames weren't going to be able to jump our firebreak into the taller brome grass behind our neighbor's house, Prairiewolf started to set small headfires that travelled quickly to meet the slowly approaching line of backfire. Here in the headfire photo, note how the flames are stretching to meet the dry grass, while in the backfire photo above, they are being blown back over the already burned land through which they've just travelled.

The image of the back pasture as a smoking wasteland didn't last very long. Almost all of the smoldering ashes had already gone out by the time we posed the picture of the successful, but smoky, fire crew (Prairiewolf's father, Prairiewolf, and Brad).

Immediately after the burn, I wondered what would happen to the cedars, since cedar control was one of many reasons we chose to do a burn this year. The cedars generally hadn't flamed up during the fire, as I'd both expected and hoped they would, and many were still quite green. However, Brad assured us that most would, indeed, turn brown and die during the post-burn weeks, and I'm definitely beginning to see that happen now.

I've been walking through the burned area daily, as part of my normal "walkabout". In just 10 days the black has faded to mostly brown with stubs of grass shoots poking up all around. The weather has been cool and rainy, so not much has greened up yet, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that once the sun appears again, new shoots will spring up rapidly. Certainly the mowed paths and firebreaks are much greener now than they were 10 days ago.
In observing the burned area, it's hard to miss the rodent runs all over it. They look like miniature paths, and they definitely bring out the child in me. I have an almost irresistible urge to grab a few Hot Wheels, fall down on my hands and knees, and explore the newly exposed "road" system the rodents have been using. As shown in the photo, sometimes the rodent runs are even right next to the mowed path, yet the human walkers had no idea their route was being paralleled by a different species' busy transportation system until the fire revealed their secret.

Each day as I walk around, my eyes are always peeled for casualties of the burn. The later the burn, the more issue there can be with animals being up out of hibernation and caught by the flames. So far the tally hasn't been too bad: I've found the baked remains of 2 lined snakes (which really do bother me) and 1 mouse of some sort.

On the other side of life, there have been large flocks of cowbirds and other blackbirds, as well as smaller flocks of robins, and pairs of killdeer, eastern meadowlarks, and flickers combing through the ashes looking for tidbits to consume. Since all of this birdlife has been coming back daily ever since the burn, I have to assume they are being successful in their searching.

It's going to be fascinating to watch how the burned area recovers. I'm hoping that there will be less weedy annual grass material and many more prairie grasses and forbs, but of course that all depends on how thoroughly overgrazed the land has been. In any event, it's now up to "Mother Nature" to work her magic, but I'm going to do my best to watch and record as she does.

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