Monday, April 2, 2012

Prairie Fire Day ... When Fires Attack

This was the small, easy section. No time to snap the big fire!
Saturday morning a truck pulled into our drive. It was our neighbor across the street, a 70-year-old farmer man who wanted to let us know he was going to be burning the pasture that day. Hank decided right away that it was definitely a good day to burn according to the weather conditions, so informed me that would be our agenda for the day. As with so many things, the time to burn is when the time is right. So ... OK, I was preparing for my first burn.
Controlled prairie grass burning is done each year in the spring to burn off the old vegetation and make way for the new green grass. It restores everything and impoves the grass quality and quantity. It was something I had never experienced until moving to the midwest--definitely not in wildfire-prone California.
We pulled our utility vehicle out of the barn and filled its tires (they tend to go flat when sitting all winter). Then Hank loaded the water tank onto the bed and soon learned the water pump was broken. So, he ran to TSC to get a new one. With the water tank and pump working, we set out for the first burn. We drove around the perimeter of the first area of CRP ground that we wanted to burn. It had a nice, green-grass border around it and it looked to be pretty straightforward. So, as Hank drove the 4-wheeler, I ignited the torch and touched the tall grass around the edges. It's amazing how fast the dry grass erupts into flames! Pretty soon there was a wall of flames burning in a circle into itself. In about 5 minutes it was done. We drove around the perimeter and watered any smolderers. 

Prairie fire. How real men water the grass!

With that piece of cake eaten, we set out for a much larger piece of CRP ground. We surveyed the perimeter and Hank settled on his plan of action. We set off fire all around with the intention of it burning itself out when it reached a waterway on the southern edge, and the green grass on the other edges. Well, things don't always go according to plan. The fire obeyed on three sides, but it didn't stop at the southern  waterway as we intended. It jumped the electric fence and continued burning into a massive section of CRP ground going south. We fought it with water as best we could but there were some scary moments when the wind would change direction suddenly and we'd be engulfed in intensely hot smoke. Thank God for the utility vehicle and being able to just motor out of it. Keeping calm (because I completely trust my husband's judgment), at one point Hank said "I don't know how we're going to put this out" because it was so large and there was so much fuel in front of its leading edge. He sent me to fill the water tank so he could study it. When I got back, he had a plan. We cut the fire in half by taking out the middle section. Once that was doused, we could go back and forth to the two smaller fires and chip away at them. This is what we did, going back and forth. Then, we set a back fire starting at the edge of an active waterway and in a matter of minutes, that inferno was reduced to smoldering piles of cow patties (really).    
Armageddon happened! New grass will sprout by week's end.
Whew! With the fire out, we drove around the entire burned area and watered down any smoke stacks. When we reached the wooded area on the northern edge, we were relieved to find the fire had obeyed and burned itself out when it reached the sheep trail and green grass. Or did it? There were patches of burned grass throughout the green grass and a suspiciously smoldering log along a fence line. We drove up and found a downed tree had caught fire and was smoking, as in a dying campfire. Hank soaked it and put it out. As I was watching him do this, the utility vehicle died. Just stopped running. Apparently, it was out of gas. We thanked God that it had gotten us through that intense period of fighting fire and stopped just as we were finishing up. We grabbed our things and walked back to the farm.
What an amazing, adrenaline-filled day. We can check off "prairie burning" on our spring to-do list, and I can count this as one more life-building experience I'd never get if I lived in civilization.