April 11, 2011

Ranchers use burns to shape, preserve prairie

SOUTH OF THE BAZAAR CATTLE PENS — This time of year, Bobbie Hammond is one of those no-nonsense Flint Hills ranchers who whizzes around on an ATV with flames and smoke trailing.

SOUTH OF THE BAZAAR CATTLE PENS — This time of year, Bobbie Hammond is one of those no-nonsense Flint Hills ranchers who whizzes around on an ATV with flames and smoke trailing.

Hammond's ATV buzzes like a bee down draws, along fence lines and across rolling prairie.

Lips painted and nails polished, Hammond doesn't waste time.

"The trick with a good burn is conditions have to be right," she says while pouring gasoline down a pipe contraption her dad designed decades ago.

Hammond is following a centuries-old tradition as she sets fire to 30,000 acres in the Flint Hills.

She knows her urban neighbors may not always approve.

But she also knows a good burn is the only way to control the prairie.

"It can't be too windy. You have to have a little wind to carry it on," she quickly explains. "Too windy, the fire just scoots across the top and doesn't burn as good. It has to be fairly dry but not too dry or you will burn your corner posts off. You wait. And when everything is right, you go."

She notches one end of the pipe to a makeshift holder on her ATV, drops a flame at the end of the pipe and, true to her word, vanishes across the prairie, flames following.

On Wednesday, some 30,000 acres of Chase County were set on fire, according to Mike Holder, Chase County extension agent, who helped coordinate the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan.

Those fires, along with fires set in Butler and Sedgwick counties, helped contribute to Wichita's smoky haze on Wednesday and an orange glow across the horizon at night.

"Evidently the wind was just right to put a little smoke in Wichita," Holder said. "It wasn't something we did on purpose. It's just some of those pastures have to have wind from a certain direction to make it feasible to burn."

But the winds kept changing throughout the day.

Nearly a third of the prairie has been burned, so far. "We've still got a couple of weeks of time when it will be desirable to burn," Holder said.

Role of burns

The burns, which can light up the night horizon and fill the lowlands with rolling smoke, have become an iconic symbol of spring in Kansas.

Burning the grass early in the growing season, instead of during the winter, minimizes the time the soil is bare and subject to erosion.

The timing also catches many non-native weeds when they are most vulnerable to fire. Burning helps rid the prairie of hedge, thorny locust and red cedar.

When early settlers and missionaries first arrived in Kansas, many noted that area Native Americans set intentional fires, burning thousands of acres at a time.

And with few natural firebreaks, the fires could race for miles at a time.

"In the Great Plains and the Flint Hills, there is an oral history account of the Indians burning the Flint Hills, deliberately gathering up dead grass in the spring into a ball, setting it on fire and dragging it behind a running horse," said Jim Hoy, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University.

The earliest accounts of fires set by Flint Hills ranchers date to 1863, when Eliza Mardin of Chase County wrote in his diary that he burned his prairie.

Without the burns, Hoy said, there would be no Flint Hills prairie.

"It would look like the Ozarks and it would be a sin against nature to let these hills become covered with trees," Hoy said.

Once started, winds could whip the fire through the dry prairie grass and, in no time, be out of control.

There were some years, during the mid-20th century, when agricultural specialists advised against the burns.

But even that, Hoy said, proved no way to manage the prairie. The experts eventually changed their minds about annual burns.

"The fire has shaped the prairie and contributes to the ecology and appearance of the Plains," Hoy said.

In the tradition

Bobbie Hammond learned the basics of ranching from her father, Virgil Kinsey, who ranched for more than six decades.

"He didn't tell you anything; you just watched and learned," she said.

Before that, her grandfather, Ike Cooper, worked on the Nation Ranch in the Flint Hills.

She learned how to deal with horses and cattle from her brother, Vernon.

"My brother was one of the best cowboys in the country," she said. "He wasn't afraid to chew me out when I did something wrong."

Wind whips the prairie, horned larks flit and meadowlarks call in the distance as Hammond drives across the grass, fire trailing behind.

As the flames build, the prairie falls silent, flames kicking up smoky dust devils, and a lone jackrabbit scurries far from reach.

In moments, the prairie has turned from brown to black.

Burning is more than setting match to grass, Hammond says. It's about knowing what the fire and wind will do once the two combine, particularly as smoke rolls near the land she manages by the Kansas Turnpike.

In April 1994, thick smoke from an out-of-control grass fire blinded drivers on the turnpike about 23 miles south of Emporia, causing a 12-vehicle pileup. A 7-year-old boy was killed and at least a dozen people were injured.

"They tried to stop us from burning when they had that accident on the turnpike," Hammond said. "My dad worried about it; some old-timers didn't. They said we were here first. My dad would worry about it. We never burned when we knew it would burn across the turnpike."

The accident prompted signs along the turnpike warning drivers to not drive into the smoke.

Hammond burns the entire 30,000 acres she manages every year.

But some ranchers are looking at burning only a third of their acreage each year.

Jane Koger, a fourth-generation rancher who runs the 4,000-acre Homestead Ranch in Chase County, is one of those.

"Fire is just one tool of land management. Burning does not begin with lighting the match," Koger said. "It begins with a plan. We have to care whether our smoke will hit major urban areas. We are all on this planet, and it behooves us ranchers to make it work."

She burns only a third to allow for better wildlife management, particularly prairie chickens.

To help reduce air quality problems in urban areas, some farmers and ranchers are voluntarily taking part in a pilot program that combines computer modeling from Kansas State University and fire management practices.

Farmers and ranchers doing burns can visit www.ksfire.org to check current weather conditions and see what direction the smoke from their burn will travel and how it will disperse.

"What I've seen this year is that my neighbors are aware of the smoke management plan," Koger said. "It is a cultural change. We are making every effort to learn and work with it. There is more discussion about winds and when it would be a good time to burn. There's been very few days when it was safe to burn."

Hammond's favorite time of the year will come after the burn — when the hills turn a lush green and the cattle are turned out to graze.

"New grass is starting now," she said.

Indeed, millions of tiny sprouts of green are already poking through the blackened prairie.

Related content