Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spring Cleaning on the Prairie - Burn, Baby, Burn!


Everyone loves a good bonfire. How about one nearly an acre in size?

This spring I once again participated in the burning of the prairie at the UW Field Station in Waterville, Wisconsin.



This event is much anticipated, and depends on appropriate weather conditions in order for it to happen.

This year we were delayed for three weeks by rainy days and lots of high winds. Finally the day dawned clear, with low winds, and the crew assembled on a Saturday afternoon.



After some prep work to create a fire break, the first small area of the prairie was burned. Then we moved on to bigger and better fires. Most areas around the prairie have mowed fire breaks, which are watered just prior to the burn.


My job as a "flapper" was to keep the fire contained within the burn area. Strong men wearing heavy water-carrying backpacks extinguished the fires along the edges of the fire break. Those of us with the flappers -- a long pole with a flat mat attached to snuff the fire out -- or dampened brooms (to sweep loose plant materials into the burn area) followed along behind, keeping an eye out for embers carried on the breeze made by the flames themselves.


The firestarter (aptly named) begins the burn by initiating small fires along the perimeter of the field. We begin along one edge, downwind, and then burn along an adjoining side of an area of prairie.

After the fire burns into the area for several yards, we have a good ash fire break.

Now we start the fire on the opposite two sides of our prairie area.These fires burn with the wind, and the crackling noise of all the dried grass canes is really something to hear!

Now the flames really get going, and if all goes as planned, the flames meet in the middle in a spectacular display of fire and smoke! It can get quite exciting to watch, experiencing the power and heat of the flames and the wind they create.


It really is hot and dirty work, but I love doing this every spring. And there are great benefits for the ecosystem in doing the burn every year or in alternate years.

Native Americans burned the prairies of Wisconsin long before forests took over much of the state. They understood the benefits of a controlled burn, and the effects it had on their livelihood.

A freshly burned prairie removes the canes from the previous years' growth, allowing the new sprouts to reach the sun. The area is blackened from the burn, and the ground absorbs heat much more readily than areas that have not been burned. This allows the plants to get an early and fast start.

Weed seeds and unwanted woody species are eliminated with burning, allowing the native grasses and wildflowers that are already established to grow.

The Native Americans understood all of this. By causing the young, supple prairie grasses to sprout, they were assured of good hunting as the deer and elk found found their way into the prairie, foraging on the fresh, young grasses.

Today we burn to maintain the prairie grasses and assist the native species of wildflowers to grow. At the Waterville Prairie, this restoration project has been going on for decades.


Marlin Johnson is the resident manager here. He has managed the UW - Waukesha Field Station for more than 40 years.

The 98 acre property includes the prairie lands, woodlands, access to Henrietta Lake and the boardwalk there, bottom land along the Scuppernong Creek, a pond, and numerous hiking trails.

The property also includes the old homestead farmhouse in which Marlin resides, and a large barn and outbuildings.


In addition, there is a large wood-fired kiln used by UW students for firing their pottery masterpieces. The day of the burning, the students had been removing hundreds of pieces of pottery from the kiln. During the previous week, the kiln had been loaded, and the fire burned for 5 days, reaching temperatures between 2300-2500 degrees. After a long period of cooling, the pieces were brought out into the daylight. It was quite a display!


The students came out to watch the prairie burn, and were duly impressed. The burn is really something to see. Large columns of smoke billowed into the sky and got their attention from the other side of the hill where the kiln resides.

Prairie work is done by volunteers. Planting sections of prairie, and then weeding the new areas are summer work. But burning is for the springtime, with the promise of new life and renewal.

Burning may seem counterintuitive, but it is a time-tested method for maintaining the prairie. Imagine if years and years of 9 foot canes from the tall grasses matted down and were never removed. An ensuing fire would rage out of control!

By scheduling controlled burns, the young and the massive burr oaks on the property are protected from too-hot fires. And the preservation of the prairie grasses and wildflowers is assured. If left fallow, over time, the land would begin to revert to forest, as scrub and hardwood species move in.

The Waterville Prairie is a wonderful place to hike and enjoy in any season. It is located off of Waterville Road, and the Glacial Drumlin Trail runs along its southern borders. It is a peaceful place, and includes a creek, woodlands, and pine forest, and of course, the rolling prairie lands. It's one of my favorite places to go for a hike, or just to be.