Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Time to Burn, Again!

This weekend the Apple River Fire department came out to do a controlled burn on our larger prairie. As I mentioned last year when we burned our smaller prairie, controlled burns are a key part of prairie restoration. The fire burns out non-native plants, freeing up room and nutrients for prairie plants. The prairie plants have deep roots (bluestem roots can be as deep as 12 feet!), so they can survive fires. Fire also returns vital nutrients to the soil that would take many years to return otherwise due to the slow decay of the plants.

Native prairie is vital to the ecosystem. It offers habitat for rare birds, butterflies, insects, and other small critters. And since native plants are best adapted to local climates, they need no maintenance (like fertilizers or other inputs) and are drought-resistant. The deep root systems hold soil in place as well, preventing erosion and run-off into precious wetlands. I've heard prairie root systems referred to as being like inverted rainforests! 

Okay, enough history lesson and onto the fire bit for all you pyros out there!

This year we had a smaller crew, even though we were burning a much larger area. No matter—the fire still burned just as quick!
Starting the burn in the northern section of the prairie.
Encouraging the burn to move south across the field while ensuring it doesn't jump the break line.
Another thing that was a bit different this year was that they brought a large tractor tiller to till up a fire break. He wasn't able to go around the entire perimeter as planned, though, since the ground was pretty soft in parts and he was afraid of getting stuck.

The fire was super slow to start at first, as the prairie was still a bit damp from the previous night's frost. But the wind soon picked up a bit, and that really helped the fire spread. I learned that they start the fire with a 50/50 mixture of diesel fuel and drain oil. Gross! But they assured me that it all burns off and nothing seeps into the ground.
Now she's cookin'!
Fire spreading from the northeast, creating an impressive smoke cloud
The western line of fire meets the northeastern line and burns toward the middle of the prairie.
The fire never burns very high (about a foot at most), and in most places it just sorta puts itself out as there's nothing left to burn. The guys do fan out along the perimeter, putting out any stray sparks that threaten to move past the break. They bring out a mini tanker toward the end of the burn to spray the perimeter as well.
What's left at the end is a gorgeous field of dark, nutrient-rich soil!
A small stand of wildflower stems that didn't burn. These are the pretty daisy-like flowers that grow taller than me!
The next day when we walked the dogs around the pond, there were already green shoots coming up through the soil. Amazing!

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