Vulture and Flame: Spring In the Flint Hills

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Like the return of turkey vulture, prairie burning is a sign of spring in the Flint Hills. It isn’t the terrifying disaster some might imagine; the burns are lit intentionally to clear dead plant matter that would choke out new growth. From the blackened ground will emerge fresh grass, greener and more nutritious to the animals who graze here. It is considered an essential part of prairie stewardship, and it also raises the monetary value of a pasture. Prairie never burned or grazed by a hoofed animal eventually turns to woodland. Burning kills off the invasive trees, while the deep roots of the native grasses are left to send up new green shoots.

While I haven’t heard anyone criticizing the practice of burning the prairie, there is some debate about how often it ought to be done. Many ranchers burn annually, and profit from that practice. At the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, they burn once every three years, and find that allows for greater diversity of plants, most notably, more wildflowers.

Weather conditions must be right for burning. Strong wind can blow the fire out of control. No wind allows it to burn out in all directions. A light, steady breeze is ideal, so that the flames advance in a predictable line, from one side of a pasture to the other. There may not be many days when the season and weather are right, so when they come, there’s a lot of burning all around. The smoke burns the eyes, and, even miles away, tiny bits of ash come falling from the sky.

Yesterday smelled like a camp fire, everywhere, all day. My client from Emporia reported smoke thick as fog on Highway 50. The fires at night are beautiful to see, but the day was preternatural and I couldn’t wait until dark. I went to the high spot at the scenic overlook, and though I didn’t see any blackened prairie, I got a few shots of the smoky hills.

It’s smoky again today, so maybe I’ll get a chance to photograph some actual flames. For now, here are some smoke shots, and I’ll post more later.

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