Prairie Fire

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames
April 1997

Last week I was part of my first real Prairie Burn, additionally I was supposed to be one of the "persons in charge." I found this to be somewhat awkward and somewhat familiar. In my job as a Biology instructor, I’m expected to be an expert on many things about which I have only a cursory knowledge.

The prairie area is about 8 or 9 acres, it was only fairly recently established, less than 15 years ago. It hadn’t been burned for 3 or 4 years. Burning is part of the natural cycle for a prairie, something essential to its health. This prairie is composed solely of grasses, no forbs (or those plants that are not grasses nor trees) so there were no flowers. We are planning on planting flowers now that the prairie has been burned.

We had 25 students from both my botany class and a humanities class, one experienced biology faculty, one inexperienced biology faculty, and 1 humanities faculty who had required volunteerism of her class. We were armed with about 15 rakes, 4 flappers (rubber mats attached to long handles), and one flame weeder (ours).

he weather was perfect. A small amount of wind, not too much and coming from the west. It started out just as planned, we lit a back fire in the direction that we expected the wind to blow a fire we would light later. The two fires were expected to meet and put each other out. We waited in the north, in the adjacent corn field. Across the fire, the other side of the prairie was bounded to the south by a short stretch of woods and a creek. To the west was a pond, and to the east, more than 60 acres of land that had been in CRP (conservation reserve program) for more than 10 years. It had not been tilled, hayed, pastured, nor burned for 10 years. To to slow the fire down at the west end, a 30 foot strip of grass had been mowed between our prairie and the adjoining eastern property. This was to allow us to put out the fire before it left the little prairie.

The fire and the grasses were spectacular. The sound and the smell was exciting, invigorating. I really felt present, there was no thinking about the past, no planning my next meeting, no worrying, no future, just this fire, eating its way up the hill. The fire to the west was set, it moved toward the first fire as planned. Rabbits ran out of the grass. Smoke pillared high into the sky. I could actually feel the energy that had been trapped in these plants being set free as heat and light. I understood that this all came from the sun, it was all captured as photosynthesis quietly absorbed photons of sunlight and used that energy to make sugar, starch and cellulose. All that sun was now being released in a this orange and black finale.  

The fire escaped into the corn stubble, it was moving towards me and my students. We quickly learned how hot those grasses had become. We quickly learned to turn our rakes upside-down and scratch patches of bare earth where the fire could not burn. The flappers were used to smother the fires, we learned not to flap them down but to be gentle so as not to fan the flames.  

I was so proud of my students, they worked so hard. All the inhibitions were gone, they too were in the present and only the present. They did not check there watches to see if the class hour was over, they did not ask what it was they had to know for the exam, they did not ask, ‘why are we doing this?’ I was pleased.

The fire got out of control. The wind picked up, the fire created more wind of its own, and it leapt our mowed area to the east and began burning the fence posts and moving to the CRP land. We called the fire department. They called two other fire departments. My students did not leave. They kept working. 40 additional acres were burned. No one was hurt, no buildings were lost. 

To the land to the east was returned nutrients that had been slowly pulled from it by the vegetation for 10 years. The new grasses will have better nutrition, more sunlight and a warmer soil from which to begin fresh this spring. It is a better start than it had in years. For this part of Iowa it is a much more natural start. 

I was oscillating between horror and joy! Horror at how this out of control fire would affect my position, what would the administration say? the town? the owner of the land? Joy to see what was the natural order, the way of this land, the need for that grassland to burn was greater than our ability to control it. It had been waiting for just a spark. It had no property line, no human owner. I had a change of philosophy, I could forget the property line for just a moment and be glad of the extended burn. It was a gift to us both.