Every spring, this ritual continues. Viewed up close or at a distance, prairie fires are riveting. Across the vast, open grasslands we call the Flint Hills, fires can be seen for miles. The flames lick at the blue Kansas sky as the brown, dry grass crinkles, cracks and bursts into orange.
But these fires aren’t recent phenomena and they aren’t strictly for the viewing pleasure of those traveling up and down our highways. Long before civilization invaded the prairie, fires were ignited by lightning storms and the prairie was charred to restore the health of the native grasses.
Native Americans were the first practitioners of prescribed fires. They used the fire to attract the buffalo for easier hunting.
The artificially ignited controlled burning of the tall-grass prairie in east-central Kansas is an annual event designed to mimic nature’s match. It has become a tradition, part of the culture of the communities and the people who inhabit this region of our state.
Fire is an essential element of the ecosystem. Burning these pastures is one of the best management tools for maintaining the native prairie.
This annual pasture burning only occurs for a few days each year. It is not a procedure that is drawn out and lasts for weeks. However, weather conditions dictate the length of the burning seasons most years.
Not every cattleman burns his pastures each and every year as is sometimes portrayed. Instead, individual ranchers and landowners survey and decide each spring, which pastures will benefit and produce a healthier, lush grass for livestock after burning occurs. Often neighbors plan and burn together, giving them more hands to ensure a safe, controlled burn.
“Forage quality and ecosystem health are both dependent on fire,” says Steve Swaffar, Kansas Farm Bureau Natural Resources Division. “Without fire we have woodlands in the Flint Hills and the livestock industry loses a fantastic resource.”
Spring burning is one of the easiest and most effective methods of controlling the eastern red cedar.
“There’s nothing better for the control and eradication of this extremely invasive tree than to run a fire through the grassland every two or three years,” he says.
Kansas State University experts recommend burning take place when wind speeds are between 5 and 15 miles per hour, relative humidity is from 40 to 70 percent and temperatures fall in the range of 55 to 80 degrees.
Landowners in all counties must have notification requirements to local officials prior to planned, controlled burns. This notification is a key to preventing prescribed fires turning into accidental wildfires and ensuring burning is allowed under the existing conditions.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) recently completed the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke management plan. This plan is intended to help alleviate air quality issues in urban areas generated by prescribed burning in the Flint Hills region. Coupled with the associated web tools, it should give producers better decision-making abilities when planning and implementing prescribed fires.
Producers can now assess how the smoke from their burns may impact urban areas downwind, Swaffar says. This kind of information can make a difference in keeping ozone within acceptable levels and keeping regulatory restrictions from impacting ranchers. This new website is www.ksfire.org.
The real crux of this plan is that actions to control smoke in the Flint Hills ranching community remain primarily voluntary. Copies of the plan can be found on Kansas Farm Bureau’s website, www.kfb.org.
The farm and ranch community is tuned into ever changing weather conditions and will continue to keep prescribed fire in the tall grass prairies confined to a minimum time period. This process is part of the culture of the rural communities that dot the Flint Hills region.
Prairie fires help Mother Nature rejuvenate the grasses that carpet her fertile hills. That means good things for cattlemen, for agriculture, for rural communities and the Kansas economy.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.