Editor’s Pick
APRIL 13, 2011 8:34AM

Chasing Fire

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The tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas looks timeless, but it isn't a static ecosystem.  There is constant encroachment from woodland biomes to the east, and periodic burning, along with grazing animals and drought, prevents a prairie from turning into a forest.   

In pre-settlement times native peoples set fires to encourage new growth which attracted elk, bison and other game; they called prairie fire "the red buffalo."  Modern cattlemen in the Flint Hills of Kansas continue the practice because, as the National Park service says,  "The benefits of fire are enormous.  The tied-up nutrients that take months or years to decay are within seconds turned to ash and in a form usable to plants.  Sunlight warms the blackened ground and stimulates dormant plants to sprout and grow.  Grazers are able to feed, uninhibited by dead litter, further stimulating growth.  Trees and shrubs with the stems and branches exposed to the intense heat are killed, allowing the ground under them to receive full sunlight once again."

In other words, prairie needs fire to survive, but Flint Hills ranchers don't burn their pastures because of environmental concerns; they do so because a cow can put on two pounds of weight a day grazing on tallgrass prairie, or bluestem pasture as they call it, and the best way to keep that pasture productive is annual or semi-annual burning. That the burning also helps to protect an endangered landscape is just a bonus.  Every year in March and April, they burn off the prairie, and a couple days ago I made a day trip out there to see it.


 Note: left click on an image to view it in larger format.


When I drove up onto the Flint Hills near Saffordville there was burnt prairie as far as the eye could see, with only an old windmill punctuating the barrenness. This area was burned some time last week, and I began to wonder if I was too late to catch the burn.



To the south were pastures which were already greening up, which means they were burnt two or three weeks ago, but off in the distance was some smoke. Where there's smoke there's fire...



This little burn, struggling to advance into a strong north wind, isn't very impressive, but so far it's the only game in town.



Behind the fire-line are smoldering cow patties.  



 A close-up; these flames were no more dangerous than a Bic lighter.



Not many wildflowers were up yet, but these birdsfoot violets (Viola pedatifida) were everywhere.



I headed north from the little fire, enjoying the scenery whether it was burning or not.  Here is unburnt prairie, still wearing its fall/winter colors, on the Tallgrass National Preserve north of Strong City.



The Lower Fox Creek School, a well-known landmark visible from Kansas Highway 177.  Founded in 1884, the school was closed in 1930 as the local population began to decline. A tornado blew the original roof off and for a while the building was used to store hay, but it has since been restored and is now maintained by the National Park Service. 



Back on the road.  My day trip/quest for fire has turned into a matter of looking for smoke on the horizon then heading that direction.






 Fire fire!



Fire fire fire!  In places the flames came right down to the road.



This Angus bull didn't seem concerned.



Smoke rolling over the hills.



An abandoned house and more smoke in the distance.



The cattlemen start burns in the center of a pasture, and the lines of flame spread out from there.



I pulled over here to watch flames move into a thick, matted stand of switch grass (Panicum virgatum).



The wind was from the north and I was south of the fire-line; not smart.



In the space of a couple seconds, this close-up turned into...



...this one. It's out of focus because I was backing up as fast as I could, which didn't seem nearly fast enough at the time.



The red buffalo.



Flowering trees (Cercis canadensis) stand out against the burnt landscape. If not for fire, stands of timber like this would spread from ravines and creek bottoms up onto the hillsides, and within a few decades the prairie would be a woodland.



Tallgrass in early summer, looking very different from the apparent ruination of the spring burn.  






All images ©2011 by Nanatehay.

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Did not realize this. Love the red buffalo and the charming schoolhouse. Like the juxtaposition of the desolation against the colors of the flowering trees. Very nice.
I love the smell of smoldering cowpies in the morning!

Seriously, this was an absolutely gorgeous pictorial. Where I am from, the Everglades have a burn cycle too. All the city people who migrated here for sun and fun thought the fires to be dangerous and subsequently tried to snuff them out with the help of Big Sugar...And the Army Corp of Engineers finished the abuse of the 'Glades by messing over the watershed carving nice neat canals for "drainage." It's turning back around now with wiser heads in charge, but fire is as necessary as water, earth and air here on earth. See? You got me thinking. A sign of really good writing and photography.
Amazing how beautiful a landscape can be w.o. trees. (I prefer trees, however - grew up in southern Alberta, and have a slight case of agoraphobia, or something - uneasiness standing where I can see and be seen for miles around.) Great pictures - we're indebted to you for risking getting singed...or worse.
I expect to see this on the cover!!
We have controlled burns out here, but for different reasons. Because it is so dry they do it as a preventive measure. We have had some devastating fires here in Boulder in the last year.
Awesome pictures!
Every time I go to Fox Creek School I think Laura and Mary Ingalls are going to come running out the door with Nellie Olsen chasing 'em.

Linnnn, let's hope they restore the water cycle in the 'Glades to its proper balance. I visited there once and thought it one of the finest places I've ever been.

Myriad, I'm just the opposite; if I'm too long in a place without open skies and long horizons I start getting claustrophobic. I think you'd like the Flint Hills though, especially in summer when hundreds of species of wildflowers are blooming.

Susie, as I understand it wildfires out West were important for the ecosystems there, but once fire prevention measures began it allowed forests to get too full of brush and deadfall wood, which made the fires much worse when they happened. The controlled burns help alleviate that problem, as well as encouraging new trees and other flora which thrives in more open settings.
Yes, Susie - on the cover w. one of those photos!

I read somewhere that keeping back the forests allows humankind to thrive. There isn't that much for people to eat in the bush, whereas open spaces grow grain and feature large herds of large edible creatures. So - slash and burn can be good! (Within limits I guess - considering all that smoke and lack of carbon-sucking trees...)
Awesome post. Thanks for taking time to download all these pictures. It's difficult to choose a favorite. EP and cover for certain!
Great pictures, and thank you for pointing out once again how great a debt the Wasiciu owe the First Peoples -- a debt that will never be repaid. Now if those ranchers would just get rid of those damned cows and bring back the buffalo!

And what's with my tax dollars going to support that empty old prairie school house? Why, that money would be much better spent giving another tax break to Mobil or David Koch or fighting a war in some backwater Mideast country!
What a neat post. I especially like the picture of the abandoned house. Gave me an eerie feeling for some reason. Great pics nana!
Nana I knew about horses but not about cows.. Makes sense. I hope this makes cover. Great pictures.
Rated with hugs
This is lovely.
uts me in mind of the Slaveholders, ironically, bc they virtually ruined the South's soil bc they refused so often to allow fields to lie fallow--a necessity for replenishment--in favor of constant profits. This was a major reason they demanded slave-state expansion into the west and dreamed of conquering Mexico and Central America.

The prairie is hard to beat in terms of natural, endless beauty.
Great pictures and what an honor to be backed up by a Red Buffalo. Thanks as well for the mini botany lesson~
This is really informative and interesting and I hope makes the cover. Thanks, Nana. RRRR
Fantastic post, my post a few back was a dream one. I used a picture of a prairie burn from last year near New Glarus Wisconsin. That particular burn, which is close to a place called Little Switzerland, was a bit out of control and had to be reigned in. My kids were hiking in the area as it was along a structured bike route. My son who takes pictures captured several shots.

Glad to see this photo essay.
These were beautiful images, arranged like a dream sequence. I like how they pictorialize what is really going on in our everyday reality, beauty and burn at the same time. Just the nature of things.
Fascinating. The expanse of this boggles my mind. Our former neighbors set fire to the marsh grass every spring, endangering homes and leading occasionally to arrests. Legend has it they traditionally did it to expose the wild asparagus. Other theories include a genetic strain of pyromania.
very interesting, nanatehay! It's hard for me not to believe in some higher power when we have the workings like this in nature. I know these fires were set, but what ensues after the burn is really quite remarkable. Thank you for this fine post, nanatehay!
Nice to see what spring looks like in Kansas. r
Nice to see what spring looks like in Kansas. r
alright, scary as hell, but come on green!
Beautiful pictures!

Actually, fire is *not* a disaster in most places. In fact, most forests in the US are fire-adapted and -dependent. Eastern deciduous forests, which cover(ed) most of the eastern half of the US, were subject to regular fires, and are now losing diversity in part due to fire-suppression (though overbrowsing by deer is the bigger problem here). Most Western forests, too - especially montane and drier forests - are absolutely fire dependent, as are Southern forests. Fire is only (occasionally) problematic today because the decades of fire-suppression has led to a build-up of fuels which causes the historic ground fires to climb into the canopy and become tree-killing crown fires.

In the last decade or two, we've started to realize that Smokey has done more harm than good.
We experience this rite of spring in our neck of the woods also - even after all these years it still amazes me that something can be burned to the ground in order to revive more vigourous and healthy. Great pics.
Great post Nana!

I wonder what they did before steel fence posts.
Wonderful! I grew up out in the shortgrass prairie, but I attended my first three grades in a one-room school (and that was well after 1930 — after 1960, even!). We didn't burn pastures, because there's really not enough grass in them to sustain a fire, but we (and lightning) burned wheat stubble every July.

We had intended to spend a day at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve last week when we came through Kansas, but the wind was blowing 50 mph — although out of the south that day — and we decided to turn west instead and drive through Quivira in search of whooping cranes. I'd forgotten that the wind can blow so hard in Kansas that I can't walk into it.
I see you mentioned the misguided fire supression policies in the mixed conifer forests of the west coast. Our forests are now tinder boxes, often only a lightning strike away from becoming a prairie.
Great photos and time to learn the life lesson for good: stay upwind.
Mmmmm, smoldering cow patties. :-)

Beautiful photos, and really educational too. I need to get out and see the prairie!
Very informative with beautiful pictures.
You’ve deftly captured the entire cycle from barren ground to hopeful new growth to lush greenery and back again. Your photos are breathtaking - it’s hard to get a sense of the vastness of a treeless landscape but you manage to convey that. And the abandoned structures are a nice touch; what an impermanent speck man really is in the scheme of things.

In “PrairyErth,” Wm. Least Heat-Moon says about fire that it has two faces: “for everything taken it makes a return in equal measure.” In the west, naturally occurring wildfires play an integral role in nature, returning nutrients to the soil and acting as a “disinfectant” for the forest ecosystem among other things.

I'd like to know how they start the fires and how they're controlled. Do they burn out on their own or must they be put out? And as an observer, do you watch at your own risk?
Great pics, especially the red buffalo. The Tallgrass Prairie extends to about 40 miles north of here, in Osage land. Oklahoma is still holding Kansas' trees hostage. Let me know when you want to work a deal.
wonderful sequence, jeff. i really appreciate that you always give a lot of explanation of the subject, often not what is common knowledge, along with your really well-executed photographs. the pic of the abandoned house with its see-through roof, the smoke behind and that fence in the foreground, is spectacular. and an EP worth its position on the cover. yay you *and* us.
Your quest for fire reminds us of its dual nature. Right now, we couldn't control a burn like those around here. You may have heard about our tinderbox conditions and significant property loss. Loved the shot of the old school.
stunning ... your kansas pictorial creates in this mind, piece of heaven.
nannnnnnnaaaaaa! - LOVE this... great pics.
Um ... I didn't see any sign of other people in these pictures, nan, only that bull, and bulls don't carry matches.
... hmm ?

Beautiful pictures though - like others, I find the Abandoned House especially so. And The Red Buffalo. All of them, really.

@ Larry - in Aus anyway, grassfires move so fast timber that fenceposts aren't in any danger - but where would you get even timber posts, in a prairie ? Maybe they didn't need them, before high speed trucks and highways ?

Love the last pic - like Tom, I couldn't help but wonder how it might look with Buffalo.
Extremely interesting. The out of focus fire and the last shot were my favorites of many. We can learn lots here.
I love the composition of the picture with the old abandoned house with the smoke in the background. I live in the boot heel of Missouri, just about twenty minutes from the Arkansas state line and every year I can see the smoke from the farmers in Ark, burning their fields off to make way for new crops.
I wasn't saying some people ( I know ) stop at nothing to get an EP - that thought never crossed my mind. Just that bulls don't carry matches, is all. That much I know.
I'm at work so I can't read all the comments before responding here so I hope this hasn't been said before. This post is intriguing and educational but mostly it is HOT! Great photos.
May the flames carry to the Westboro Baptist Church.
something has to die to make place for something to be born and the cycle of life continues - R~
I used to live in KS and the fires are beautiful and necessary. Used to drive 177. However, the burning is always hard on respiration.
You see there is a method to Gods madness and Charles Hapgood and Albert Einstein were merely outlining the method to his method.
Awesome post, Nana. Rebirth out of destruction. Your pictures are arranged in a such a sequence, they tell the story on their own. Thank you for this and congratulations on the EP.

Gorgeous photos Nana - loved the abandoned house and old school house. I am currently reading the "Little House on the Prairie" series with my daughter - this reminded me of all the things they had to endure and the various ways they ensured their livelihood.

Thank you so much and I am damn glad to see you here! :)
Awesome photos! The Flint Hills are truly a national treasure, and from my Texas/Midwest point of view they are stunningly beautiful.
~nodding~ Fire is good, as noted. A lot of plants and trees don't 'spread their seed' without the flames, also 'crowd control' for lack of a better word, without the fires, trees and such would grow so tight, well, disease is bad!!!

Rated even though the Ed I Tor got drunk today and put ya on the cover too!!! :D

(Just kidding, well deserved my friend!!!)

**Wanders off into the thorn bushes**
A fairly decent posting. I feel parched. Craving a Red Bull.
those ancient smart guys were right:
and fire...

tis all there is.
atoms? incidental to our situation, i feel.

burn baby burn...
Nana, Congratulations on the EP, the Cover and the departure of Bonnie.
Wow! I had to go back and check for an EP, and you got one. Well deserved!
Awesome! I love that part of Kansas, the Flint Hills.
How many journeys you offer me with this day of yours. You are a poet speaking of this land you love. You are a poet through your photographs as well. The red buffalo - so much said just here.
I really loved this post. I often use the analogy of the fire with my clients and in my whole life. It feels so counterintuitive but fire is necessary for the regeneration of life. Out of the ashes does come new life and when we feel like our life is in ashes, we do well to remember this. Loved the post and the pictures. And well deserved EP.
Home, home on the range, where the red buffalo blow your mind
But if you get to the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse you’ll find,
A lesson waiting where the violets birdsfoot stand in bloom
In the midst of a poetically just firestorm’s loom.
This is a post I love so dearly..the Red Buffalo
A fine piece, in every way. fascinating...
Good one and congratulations NANA!
this is wonderful.....we do this in Iowa!
I remember these scenes from my youth on the prairie. Strangely beautiful.
Wow Nana, justWOW. I was caught and held throughout. Such a unique and original topic. And the EP too, well-deserved. Great job!
Great Piece and incredible photos
Had to come back and rate it.. forgot to
congrats on the EP
Where do the field mice go? Such lovely, primal, passionate pictures, and my mind goes to the field mice. They have burrows, right? This stuff burns fast and not so hot, true? The mousies stick their heads out right afterwards, without even singeing a whisker. That's the story I'm telling myself. I would love to take photos with you some day. The road kill coffee table book. It will happen.
Just a great piece in every way. I too especially like the red buffalo. There is something that I really love about the desert and prairie. I grew up in PA with lots of hills and trees and now they feel claustrophobic to me. Live in DC and spring is here but it's almost cloying now. Ah...these pics make me want to see an open skyline without a lot in the way. Just beautiful!
Didn't have time to read your post yesterday. . . but the picture! Drew me in this morning. Glad I stopped by.
That last photo looks fit for Monet. They're all pretty spectacular. I hope the field mice had good deep holes.
Thank you all for your kind words.
Great Pics, looked like an awesome trip!
Beautiful pictures, but I wonder about the carbon footprint. When they burn off the dead grass in the Moscow region, you can smell the smoke in the city.
i love this essay and its title, chasing fire. the pictures are wonderful and the perspective important. thanks ...

Nan - you are making me extremely homesick!!! Our farm is in Butler County, just south of Matfield Green. Sigh. They must have been doing LOTS of burning yesterday - the skies over NE were very hazy and the weather-folk said some of it was coming up from Kansas. Thanks so much for sharing this little piece of paradise!!!
Malusinka, that's a good point about the carbon footprint. As I understand it, Kansas grants special exceptions to bans on open-air burning for the ranchers.

Paula, long time no see. I hope you're doing well.

Blue, I took the second through fifth photos in this post south of Matfield Green, though I'm not sure if I was in Butler or Chase county. It was spectacular country though, even for the Flint Hills.

Again, thank you to everyone who came by, and for your comments. I ordinarily answer comments individually but was away from my computer for quite a while after posting this.
Nana, we understand, with the big news announcement(who knew Typical Blogger I was a bear!?!?!) and everything(hoping the scars on your butt won't be too bad!!!)
The scars will heal with time, and I'm excited to hear you're a published author now, just like Catilin. Do they give you a special license plate to put on your car?
nana, not until you get invited onto a national talk show. I'll be on the Maury Povich show next week, but, I can kill anyone I want and nothing will be done, like diplomatic immunity except for authors!!

I know, awesome right!! I wish I would have gone public years ago, I want to kill SOOOOOOOO many people!!!!!

P.S. I already have my lines memorized for Maury's show!



Then I storm off with my new girl friend, Tasha.

I know, difficult lines, I'm ready though!! Tough being an 'author'!!

Are they still doing the burns? I'd like to see it. I have seen farm fields on fire but not in the flint hills. Great pictures of a necessary reoccuring event.
Tink, FcukJacket, a good open call would be "Who Are The First Ten People You Would Kill Once You Became A Published Author?"

Blind Dog, there's still some burning going on but it's mainly over for this year. It's time to get ready for fishing season.
I'd start with George Lucas or maybe Gwen Stefani. What the hell is a Hollaback Girl anyway? There's no excuse for that shit.
How come you didn't answer my questions about the burn? Why don't you know what a Hollaback girl is? And everyone knows you don't kill people after you're a published author; you do it before and you have to kill lots more than ten.
FJ, you'd off Sting before Bono? Hmm. If they were standing close to each other, maybe at a fundraiser for starving children, one shotgun blast would suffice for the both of 'em.

Margaret, do you know what a Hollaback Girl is? Regarding the fires, they start them with tanks of what looks like napalm, either handheld or on the back of a truck or ATV. The tank drips little balls of fire in the grass in a nice neat line, which gives good control of exactly where the burn begins, which in turn helps determine where it goes. Sometimes they start with what's called a blackline, which is a firebreak which keeps the flame from going to areas they don't want it. From my observations, sometimes they stick around and micromanage the fire but more often they start it and let things take their course, which is where the blacklines and an awareness of what the wind is doing that day come in handy. They're burning large areas, so if they watched each fire 'til it burnt out they'd never accomplish any of the other rancher stuff they have to do.
Yes I know what a holla back girl is; was just talking about it the other day. Used to be a cheerleading term. Now it's a derogatory term for a girl who waits for a guy to "holler back" at her. Of course there's a more detailed explanation which I won't get into at this time.
Please don't ever again mention Bono and orgasm in the same comment. Regarding Hollabacks, I think Marjie just made that stuff up.
My glory? Please let me know if you find it running around somewhere. Regarding stalking, you ain't no stalker, Padraig; I've met a few of the real ones around this nut house, and anyone who'd try to pin that label on you is, not to put too fine a point on it, full of shit.
I need to elaborate on that comment a little: Padraig Colman is as courteous and reasonable a person as I've known in OS, and that Mr. Fett and Rolling have a problem with him is a poor reflection upon them, not upon Mr. Colman.
If Padraig really did what he's been accused of, he'd probably know what a "holla back" girl is.
Sorry you see it that way Mr. Fett. I just call 'em as I see 'em. I've known Padraig for over two years in Open Salon, and though he and I have taken different sides of an issue before, never at any time did it become anything more than two people exchanging opinions then moving on to other topics, as civilized people can do. There are things worth fighting about, but this whole confrontation with Padraig isn't one of them.
Mr. Fett, I called you an asshole over there because y0u were being an asshole. That seems to be your default mode these days. Why? Regarding your initial comment on this post about Emma and Padraig - which I must not have noticed or read thoroughly - I very much don't appreciate slander, as anyone who witnessed my conflict with Bonnie would know. Still less do I appreciate my blog being used as a platform for it. Anyway, I've corrected the oversight now and deleted it, though in the process I also accidentally deleted Padraig's comment from last night which began with the same words.
Great pics! I love the redbuds against the charred landscape. I look forward to that stage of blossoming every year. It is beautiful and so fleeting.
Bill, I feel bad for people without redbuds in their area. I can't imagine spring without 'em.

Mr. Fett, I'll have a look.