With private land ownership, people have come to want to control wild fires, but part of what makes the most productive grasslands productive is periodic burning. In this video, watch a controlled prairie burn on Hank Will's property.
By Hank Will
In Kansas, pasture burning is a culturally accepted practice and in most counties you needn’t bother looking for a burn permit because there isn’t one. However, you want to check with your local law enforcement agency ahead of any burn to be sure that you can legally do what you want to do. In this video, we burn off about 20 acres of scrub-cedar infested pasture – but before we got started, there was a bit of prep work involved.
Step 1. Preparation and Strategy: Weeks or even months before your planned pasture burn, you will want to start thinking about your plan of attack and general burn strategy. I like to walk the area, identify any natural fire breaks, routes for runaway fires to escape, and any structures or areas where fire would have a disastrous affect. For me, that means that I pay close attention to my perimeter fence lines. I draw a hard boundary about 8 – 15 feet from the fence line beyond I will not let the fire progress. Next, in the fall, generally I mow the vegetation close all the way around the area to be burned. In this case I used a pond as part of the perimeter and a terrace swale as another. Once I have the boundaries worked out and most of the fuel in the boundary zones shredded, I check and repair equipment, watch the weather report and gather the crew. Calm winds in the 4-6 mile per hour range on burn day are ideal. What’s key is that the winds not be too strong and that they not make any radical changes in direction. Stronger winds can yield spectacular explosions of flame, but they can also drive the fire beyond your intended barriers in a heartbeat. No matter how much you planned to burn today, if you assemble the crew at the site and the winds are swirling or escalating, you simply have to reschedule.
Step 2. Once you are sure the weather is right, call your local authorities to let them know you are going to start a fire in short order. This way if someone calls because of the smoke, they will know to call you before sending out the fire department. Now it’s time to set and manage the backfire. Since prevailing winds were 5 miles per hour from the northwest the day we burned the pasture, I opted to set the backfire beginning at the pond in the southeast corner of the pasture. The strategy with a backfire is to set a continuous line of fire along the downwind edge of the pasture. In this case the downwind border is the fenceline separating me from my neighbor. Station a person where you begin lighting the fire, let it burn for a few inches or feet and snuff the flames advancing with the wind. Slow and steady really helps here. It’s prudent to have plenty of water and flat shovels or canvas beaters soaked in water to put out the flames that want to advance ahead of the wind. Once you have snuffed them, the fire will slowly burn upwind and create an ever widening firebreak. Depending on how secure your firebreaks are, you will want to work the backfire around the edges of the field. The person you left at the beginning point can work that side while the back fire setting crew can work the opposite side. Under ideal conditions you can monitor the back and edge fires before lighting the head fire. When you are satisfied that the head fire cannot escape it’s time to light it.Step 3. Lighting the head fire is as easy as dragging the burner along the upwind edge of the area you want to burn. You will soon discover that snuffing the portion of the fire that wants to burn toward you is much easier than when lighting the back fire. Once again use beaters and a spray of water to keep the fire from heading upwind but also be aware that the head fire itself can generate sufficient heat to make it difficult for you to be within 20 – 30 feet of it. Fanned by the wind, the head fire will race across the field in a spectacular display of flame, smoke and heat until it hits the back fire, when POOF, it all goes out. Wow, that didn’t take long. We’re done right? Not quite.
Step 4. Mopping Up. Pasture burning is never finished until you have mopped up all the smoldering hotspots because should the wind pick up, the embers they create could fly downwind and start another fire beyond the boundary. Mopping up is readily accomplished with a water sprayer and shovel. Simply walk or drive the area with a utility vehicle looking for smoke. Flood those smoldering mounds with water – if they are cow pies or heavy root crowns, you might need to break them up with a shovel as you wet them down. In time you will have it all out and only then can you safely leave the field and call the authorities to let them know your burn has been safely concluded.
Step 5. A month or six weeks later, walk the pasture you burned to look for any weeds that need to be controlled by other means and to marvel at the lush green and largely treeless growth. My pasture was so overgrown that the dead cedars will stand for a couple of years - -but the cattle will knock them down by whetting their horns on them and the sheep will do the same by rubbing on them. Repeat the burning process as often as every other year or when the weedy woody species are taking over yet again.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.