Prescribed Fires: Burning Iowa’s Prairies

Our final student intern guest blogger of the summer is Samuel Waite. During the academic year, Sam is a student at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, where he is studying Natural Resource Management. We were thrilled to have him spend the summer with us in Ames, working as an intern with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs.

Native prairie near Waterloo, Iowa

Native prairie near Waterloo, Iowa

Should Iowa’s prairies burn? Do they deserve to be burned to the ground, to nothing but ash? I say yes, they should. Now, that may seem like just the thing that you wouldn’t want to happen in the remnants of prairies past, but it is completely necessary. Many think fires are bad no matter what the reason; they cause destruction, harm, and even death. That may be so, but fires that are controlled and used with the intent to improve natural areas are completely different. They help create life anew, enrich the soil, and provide essential functionality to wildlife.

Prescribed fires, controlled burns, or whatever you may call them, are a very important element in managing a tall or short grass prairie ecosystem. When the prairie was at its prime, covering about 99.9% of Iowa, fires were caused by lightning strikes. There were no prescribed burns, just the fire and the prairie. Native American tribes living in or near the prairies would set them alight for various reasons as well, whether it be to help with a growing season for their crops, or to drive wild game animals from the grasses.

Burn preparation, conducting a test burn, and beginning the burn

Burn preparation, conducting a test burn, and beginning the burn

The importance of prescribed fires is seen after the fire has done its job. I have seen first-hand how the native prairie plants return with new vigor, held nutrients are put directly into the soil from the ashes of previous vegetation, and invasive or non-prairie species are eradicated once again. The prairie itself is the goal of the prescribed fires. It provides necessary habitat for a wide array of animals, insects, birds, and even reptiles, and without the prairie in its native form all of those creatures would be lost to the world.

Today, various organizations use prescribed burns for their natural areas management plans. As for myself, it was for my Fire Management class at Hawkeye College in Waterloo, Iowa. I took part in conducting three separate prescribed burns at two locations: Hawkeye College in Waterloo, Iowa and Hickory Hills Park in LaPorte City, Iowa. I had various roles in each fire, but none without their importance in the overall scheme of the burns.

For example, the pictures you see are of two prescribed burns that I was a part of. I am shown in the various stages of the burn, with my responsibility being to light and control the direction of the fires. I am using a tool called a drip-torch to do so. The drip-torch is a canister that is filled with a mixture of diesel and gasoline fuels and has a tube with a wick attached to the end that acts as the delivery method for the fuel mix. Using the drip-torch, I was able to walk slowly enough to light a good fire and not waste the fuel.

The start of the burn (left), and the middle of the burn (right)

The start of the burn (left), and the middle of the burn (right)

Wildlife are not the only ones who benefit from a healthy, newly burned prairie. Humans can benefit from it in other ways. Burning a prairie will remove any of the piled up debris from dead vegetation, which would otherwise make an accidental or uncontrolled fire more volatile. The prairie vegetation also acts as a natural water filter as well. The dense vegetation will slow the passage of water, allowing the water to deposit much of the sediment it may have been carrying. The water will then be able to infiltrate into the soil, so that the vegetation may take in what it needs, then the soil will filter out any pollution that may have been present as well.

I have seen the benefits of a prescribed burn, but on the other hand, I also see the consequences of not burning. Some prairies are overrun by invasive species, small and large trees, and have so much debris covering up every available inch. Seeing these prairies, I always wonder if they are being managed responsibly. I firmly believe that management practices, including prescribed burns, are now a vital component of any natural area.

The fires  at their highest (15-20 foot flames)

The fires at their highest (15-20 foot flames)

Fully burned prairie

Fully burned prairie

If a healthy prairie is important, with its many benefits to wildlife and humans alike, then the fires used to perpetuate the prairies are equally as important. The only way to continuously restore the prairie remnants we have in Iowa today is through controlled burns. Hopefully, I will continue to implement these fires myself, for years to come. So, yes, Iowa’s prairies must burn, and they must be burned to the ground, to nothing but ash.

Sam Waite

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