Burning Field for Pasture Health

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Kathleen McKenzie Winn
A pasture will respond quickly to a successful controlled burn.
Prairie Preserve

Fire is an essential tool in the restoration and maintenance of a prairie. Burning stimulates native plants and knocks back invasive species. Blackened, scorched soil draws sunlight, warming plant roots and promoting the growth of seedlings. The prairie eco-system evolved with fire as one of its most important natural processes.

Before European settlement, most prairie fires started when lightning sparked draught-parched grasses. Native Americans understood the connection between burning and healthy grasslands. They set fires intentionally, knowing that lush prairies would follow and attract grazing animals to their hunting grounds.

In modern times, conducting a controlled burn involves planning, equipment and just the right weather conditions. Fences, buildings and roads also have to be considered.

At South Fork, we organize a burn at least once every two to three years. We prepare a burn plan, set a date, recruit volunteers and assemble equipment.

If all goes as planned on the day of the burn, a wall of blazing orange flames moves at a steady pace across the prairie, incinerating everything in its path and sending critters fleeing for safety. A nighttime burn is especially dramatic, when fire leaps and dances against a black sky.

The land responds quickly to a successful burn. Scorched areas come back to life with lush stands of grasses and wildflowers. Animals and birds displaced by the fire return to their former habitat. Vigorous new growth of native species slows the spread of invasive plants. A healthy balance is restored.