Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fire: the odd tool of Prairie Restoration


Native Americans used fire to control and help the prairie. As this area became settled, fire was controlled at all costs. This control was for good reason-the Moose Lake and Hinkley fires were the best known of all the fires in Minnesota history. However, fire was a reality and it motivated changes that were not necessarily best for our prairies. Now, groups focus on safely burning areas that will encourage the prairie to come back and thrive.


We learned of Pheasants Forever's efforts because my children were to help in 4-H. As part of their project, my kids are revisiting the burn site to watch how the field recovers. My husband is really the only person that eventually helped because of conflicting commitments. He helped by maintaining the wet line outside the burn perimeter. This is most important when the burners are first igniting the fuel, but the water is also used at various times throughout the burn and at the end when making sure all fire is completely extinguished.


Many of the burners have training in the fire control. They take it through the Department of Natural Resources. For some larger fields, they may plow a perimeter that will help control it--but the plow line is no substitute of labor intensive observation. They work in two teams and create a ring of fire and will join on the other side.


When the two teams meet, it takes an incredibly short amount of time for the fire to flare up, cosuming all available fuel. In one burn I went on as a reporter, the flare up created intense heat and burned out in less than a minute. Another site that was six acres in size, burned eleven minutes from start to finish. Eleven minutes! The sheer terror that a fire could bring to the settlers or anyone with an out of control fire is easily understandable. It also brings new light to the Native American's practice of burning. With regular prescribed fires, not only does it open up space for new plants, it removes the dead debris that increases the risk of unintentional or more dangerous fires. Though it is hard to beleive, this blackened field will become a lush, green carpet of new foliage in a very short time. I can't wait to post photos!

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