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Tallgrass tradition
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The sky above the Flint Hills in Riley County was clear and blue as the sun rose April 12. It was a day cattlemen had been waiting for. After days of roaring southerly winds, conditions were calm.
Dew still glistened on the early morning grass as cattlemen everywhere hurried to begin the spring ritual of controlled burning of the tallgrass prairie. In less than two hours after daybreak, the first fires crinkled and cracked as the orange flames licked at the Kansas sky sending smoke climbing to the heavens.
Burning conditions were ideal as Barb Downey and husband, Joe Carpenter, flicked his Bic starting the first fire at 8:30 a.m. The 5-10 miles-per-hour breeze out of the south was already pushing a straight head fire from the south toward the north where they were setting the back fires. Back fires or back burning provide a natural fire break that a head fire cannot cross because there is no fuel (grass).
Joe notified Riley County officials of his intention to burn in advance. He knows doing so is key in preventing prescribed fires from turning into accidental wildfires and ensuring burning is allowed under existing conditions.
“There’s still always nervous anticipation when you light that first fire of the day,” Carpenter says. “Even with perfect conditions like today, there’s always that chance something will sneak around the hill, or leaves will burn through where you didn’t think they would and the worst thing you want to see is a fire out of control.”
With that in mind, Carpenter and Downey have carefully orchestrated this 2,000-acre burn with four other neighboring land owners and several additional helping ranch hands. More feet on the ground means more people to monitor and control burning conditions
They’ve been in constant contact during the last month in an attempt to select this day based on weather conditions and wind velocity to ensure a safe, controlled burn. Minutes before the first match was struck, all members of the burn team visited by cell phone.
For Carpenter and Downey, burning their pasture remains part of an ancient phenomenon that began long before humans ever walked these hills. At that time, fires were ignited by lightning storms and the prairie was charred to restore the health of the native grasses.
This 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.
“It’s about neighbors helping neighbors,” Barb says. “We do together what would be difficult to do alone.”
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.
“A properly set head fire has a nice, solid line of flames that will carry a lot of heat out ahead of it,” Barb says. “Such a fire will singe the growing nodes of any brush and then flash over the grass itself – not burning the grass crowns – but hitting the brush and woody plants hard and doing exactly what a prairie fire is designed to do.”
The fire burns so rapidly and passes over so quickly, the ground temperature cools quickly and the grass plants remain undisturbed. The new grass is ready to come out in two or three days
“There’s a decent amount of moisture in the ground,” Barb says. “There’s plenty of moisture to get the shoots going. Those healthy roots go down six or eight feet in the ground.”
With each day of sunshine bearing down on the now blackened soil, the grass soaks up this radiant heat and soon pops out beautiful and green ready for cattle grazing.
Landowners and cattle producers are proud to do their part keeping the native prairie the way it is intended to be – covered with grass. Without the spring burns this, unique grassland would soon disappear and become covered with shrubs, woody plants and trees.

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.