Originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of Sheep! magazine. Subscribe for more great stories!
By John Kirchhoff, Kirchhoff Katahdins
Fire in your pasture is like a brother-in-law, it can be useful and helpful or a financially draining menace.
For many people, their idea of any fire outside of a romantic fireplace setting, or a sweet smelling barbecue grill is a menacing, chemical reaction freak of nature that gets star billing on TV news because it’s destroying houses and forests.
Like most other things in our lives, there’s a time and place for fire and it can do great things in your pasture when used properly.
Think of fire as you would horses; it can behave like a well broke team, working diligently under your control doing as you command. Or it can be akin to a wild mob stampeding across the land, leaving only destruction in its wake.
What can fire do to your pastures or grassland?
On the positive side, it can remove excessive amounts of dead residue that are choking out desirable vegetation.
It can alter the species of plants that make up an area, suppressing the undesirable ones while enhancing the desirable ones and all without the application of synthetic herbicides.
It can stimulate native warm season “prairie grasses”, turning what was an impenetrable mass of annual weeds into a productive stand of desirable grasses in less than a year.
For those interested in nature, it can do just the opposite to a grass plant.
In the space of a few months, it can turn a solid stand of “wildlife-sterile” cool season grass into a “wildlife-friendly” sea of wildflowers and native grasses fit for the opening scene of “Little House on the Prairie.” And surprisingly, native forbs (broadleaf “weeds”) that have been absent for a lifetime will magically appear, providing feed and cover for birds and bunnies all winter long.
Red cedar trees taking over your pasture? Fire will kill them totally. And believe it or not, woodland fires can actually be desirable under the right conditions, although I won’t go into that in this article.
So far, everything sounds wonderful and makes you want to grab the nearest box of matches and burn up the entire county.
You better temper your enthusiasm because at the wrong time of year and under certain soil and weather conditions, a searing hot fire can permanently wipe out a good stand of desirable grasses.
Without proper planning, you can burn down buildings and turn vehicles into what looks like a blackened fish lying on a Cajun’s dinner plate.
You can inadvertently burn up desirable wildlife habitat as well as the wildlife itself.
Fail to look at your barometer and you can put blinding smoke across a highway and cause news-making, 99-car pile-ups.
You can ignite creosote soaked power poles supporting live, 200KV power lines, turning them into a mammoth Roman candle.
Without even trying, you can make lifelong enemies of your neighbors and the local volunteer fire department.
And in a worse-case scenario, your escaped fire can even get you on the nightly news, ensuring that you enable lots of lawyers to make their Caddy or Lexus payments while they try to keep you from becoming a cellmate to an overgrown, hairy backed gent nicknamed “The Macerator.”
If that last paragraph doesn’t have you curled up in the fetal position, let me just say that there are professionals that do controlled burns for a fee. From a liability standpoint for the novice, that’s the safest way to go. And for the record, the term “controlled burn” is just that, an intentional fire that burns when and where you want while delivering the results you’re looking for. The conservation departments of some states offer burn schools, teaching safety and proper burn techniques to those who are considering doing their own burns.
So will your pastures benefit from a controlled burn? Sitting here in north central Missouri, I can’t begin to fathom whether or not it would. A good place to start would be your county’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) or University Extension.
Liability being what it is these days, most can no longer write burn plans specifically for your farm. However, they can provide information as to what a burn may accomplish on your farm as well as potential hazards that may exist nearby. Being cognizant of those hazards is important because even controlled burns performed by experts under optimum conditions can sometimes get out of control.
Incidentally, a burn plan is kind of a “how to” set of instructions, stating weather and wind conditions necessary for the burn, widths of firebreaks, ignition points, hazards and so on. Above everything else: Safety and planning!
Knowledge Is Power
I’ve been on burn crews with managed burns in grassland settings and have seen the positive results afterward. Those fires were well planned with properly equipped personnel following the fire boss’s orders, they being where needed at the proper time. The worst thing incurred were smoky smelling clothes that had to be thrown into the washing machine when I got home. Unlike some people’s expectations of fire, no houses were burned down, no automobile fuel tanks exploded and no one died. After we finished, a quickly dissipating smoke cloud and blackened landscape were the only result.
I’ve also seen uncontrolled wildfires rip across grassland and the long-lasting damage caused. And take my word for it, an out of control fire is something you don’t want to experience.
In one particular case, apparently, someone tossed a cigarette out on the highway near my farm. It was a warm, windy day in an abnormally dry February with low humidity.
The fire raced across a timothy hay field and was so hot it even burned into the ground, chasing the plant’s root system. The result was bare dirt and not a single living timothy plant later that spring.
On my farm, I’ve seen (and smelled) the ground hugging smoky pall from an intentional grass burn 17 miles away. Those folks made several unnecessary mistakes; one was burning when the barometric pressure was falling, thus causing the smoke to hug the ground. Rising barometric pressure causes smoke to go up, which is where you want it to go. Their second mistake was burning too late in the day. Cool season grass, especially tall fescue, produces a lot of smoke when burned. As the humidity went up, come evening the fire cooled down causing even heavier, oily smoke to be produced. Most generally, the wind dies down come evening and that evening was no different. That caused the low hanging smoke to very leisurely follfour-lane lane highway all the way to my house and beyond. Along the way, it went right through a town of 13,000 people, creeping through the streets just like the deadly, first-born killing fog in the movie “Ten Commandments.” Fortunately no auto accidents occurred because of the smoke, but the city’s police department received plenty of phone calls from confused, concerned citizens, which certainly livened up their evening and undoubtedly spared the lives of many innocent donuts.
That incident was a perfect example of what happens when you don’t know what you’re doing but you go ahead and do it anyway.
Have A Plan
The odds of fire doing precisely what you don’t want it to do increase geometrically but conversely to the amount of planning and observation put into preparation for the burn.
I consider the most important part of planning a controlled burn as being what to do if it goes bad.
Motivational speakers never recommend one to expect and plan for failure, but then again I’ve never met a motivational speaker that has been on a burn crew. If they had, no doubt their talks would contain a bit more pessimism and caution.
Most importantly, when burning, expect the unexpected. Sometimes wind direction or weather conditions unexpectedly change, proving that weathermen get paid the same even when they’re wrong.
Also unnerving is that a very hot fire can create its own wind currents, as well as fire tornadoes, both of which do whatever they please regardless of your planning.
Fire tornadoes can jump up and over firebreaks, roads or streams and ignite anything flammable in their path. Having been a soil conservation technician for nearly four decades, I’ve seen that burning with poor planning or no planning nearly always results in unintentional and sometimes disastrous results. Consider yourself lucky if the only thing you get is a less than cordial visit from the sheriff. I know from experience that even with a well planned, controlled burn under optimum conditions and manned with an experienced crew, your pulse rate invariably speeds up when you strike that first match. I guess it’s the same feeling gamblers get immediately after throwing the dice because no matter how well planned and executed, there is always an element of risk involved. It’s true that when done properly it’s unlikely the fire will get away from you, but remember that anything is always possible.
I won’t provide any literary burn training lest my words get you into trouble, but there are a few things to consider.
First and most important, when you burn, is there anything nearby that smoke or an escaped fire could affect? The smoke across the highway mentioned above is a perfect example of a major concern. Or it may be as minor as the neighbor lady that hangs her wash out every Wednesday and if you burn on that day, she will undoubtedly call the sheriff after you’ve gotten her wash smelling like a slab of bacon.
Sometimes you have no alternative but to wait for the wind to be blowing a particular direction before you can burn. I’ve seen burns that didn’t occur until over a year later because the wind was never blowing the right direction at the right speed when the humidity and plant growth conditions were acceptable. If I had to give only one piece of advice, it would be that when in doubt the least little bit, don’t burn!
I’ve found that while people know that fire consumes oxygen, they don’t realize what massive amounts of oxygen a large, hot fire inhales. Most people would never think a good strong fire could consume enough oxygen to stall vehicle engines, but it can. That’s why you should never drive a vehicle in an unburned area during a burn. A fire doesn’t discriminate between a vehicle stalled or stuck in the mud and the grass it’s supposed to burn.
Insurance companies take a dim view of people that burn up their own vehicles with a fire they intentionally set themselves.
Something else is that the carbon in smoke is electrically conductive and heavy smoke near power lines can cause a huge arc to jump to the ground. If you happen to be in the way, you’re left looking like that marshmallow that invariably catches fire on a camp out. We all know that sparks start fires and a hollow tree that catches fire will chuff out smoke, fire and sparks that would make any self respecting steam locomotive jealous. That’s a perfect example of why one should always walk and inspect the area in and around the planned burn. That one hollow tree can ignite the rest of the county under certain conditions. In the best case scenario, you set up all night babysitting the fire-breathing chimney, waiting for it to finally burn it self out.
Another concern is wind. Like Goldielocks and the Three Bears, you can have too much wind, not enough wind or wind that’s just right. Some people are surprised that you actually want some wind blowing when doing a burn.
Here’s an analogy any parent should relate to: When herding little kids though the Wal-Mart toy section, think of them as the fire and you as the wind. Without your prodding and grabbing of shirt collars, they would loll around all afternoon going in every direction yet going nowhere all the same. Fire is unpredictable and dependable wind lessens that unpredictability. I say dependable wind and by that I mean a gentle breeze that is constant and always blows in the same direction.
The wind before a cold front passes through is changeable and therefore not predictable. You don’t want the wind to change directions and suddenly blow the fire towards you rather than away from you. The strong winds in front of a high-pressure system die down to nothing as it passes overhead and then pick up again behind it, although blowing in the opposite direction. At lunch time a fast moving system can have fire traveling the opposite direction it was before you started eating, requiring you to forgo mother’s advice of chewing 20 times before swallowing.
As mentioned, the other thing is that the wind generally picks up after late morning and dies down come evening. While not nearly as bad as a wind powered fire racing away out of control, too little or no wind ensures you will be there far into the night encouraging the fire to hurry up and get done so you can go home. Managing a fire without wind is a lot like herding cats.
Getting Rid of the Fire
So much for getting a fire to go, so how do you get one to stop?
The normal practice is to have a fuel-deficient, non-flammable border surrounding the area to be burned. It can be a burned firebreak, a wide strip that has already been burned and is devoid of any fuel. Deprive a fire of its fuel and it goes from flames six feet tall to nothing in a matter of seconds. A firebreak can also be a tilled strip, a tilled crop field, road, wide stream or anything of adequate width that will deprive the fire of any fuel. When it comes to firebreaks, the more fuel there is, the stronger the wind and the lower the humidity, the wider the firebreak needs to be.
There are always exceptions and when burning, wind is one. When burning firebreaks, little or no wind is preferable. This allows you to precisely control the location and width of the firebreak with a minimum of effort and possibility of escape.
One other note of caution, fire travels faster when going uphill rather than downhill. Stand at the top of a steep slope covered with dry fuel and it can be physically impossible to get out of the way of the fire racing up the slope. Whether it’s fire or grizzly bears, always know where they are and always have an escape route.
Tools of the Trade
Being properly equipped makes the difference between you being tired and smelly at the end of the day, or totally exhausted with all the hair burned off your arms.
Most importantly wear cotton or wool clothing and NEVER wear synthetic clothing! Synthetics melt rather than burn and act like napalm, burning itself into your flesh.
Snug fitting goggles, long sleeved shirt, snug fitting or tied down pants cuffs, gloves and construction style helmet or other non-flammable protective headgear are a must.
And don’t be a slave to fashion and wear the torn, ripped and frayed jeans common these days. Those frayed ends are just like a fuse on a firecracker with you being the latter.
As for tools, a slapper is basically a piece of mud flap on the end of a handle and is used to smother small flames. A handheld or backpack pump-up water sprayer is a must. And a backpack leaf blower is very desirable. The latter will blow fuel away from the flames and can blow out smaller flames.
As for a fire source, drip torches are great but everything from handheld butane torches to matches will suffice.
One method I recommend you not use is to drag a burning car tire behind an All Terrain Vehicle. Yes, one idiot actually did that.
I’m certainly no expert by any means, but knowing the necessary conditions for a fire and managing it properly have enabled me to burn small areas of two to five acres with a slapper and without emptying a two-gallon pump sprayer. It’s not recommended that one person burn by himself, but sometimes there just isn’t anyone else around.
When doing a controlled burn, make a few phone calls both before and after burning. Letting the authorities or local fire department know you are intentionally burning an area will save them from making unnecessary runs. And letting them know when you are finished burning will insure they do respond should your fire re-ignite later or your neighbor’s house catches fire from a totally unrelated cause. Those local firemen can save your hide should something go wrong and you want to stay on their good side.
When Do I Burn?
The stage of growth the plants are in when burned has a large effect upon whether that particular plant’s growth is stimulated or suppressed. For most grasses, burning when they have an inch or so of new growth in early spring is generally the best. Burn before green up and the fire can burn down into the dry crown of the plant, damaging or even killing it. Burning when the new growth is four to six inches tall will greatly retard growth that growing season. As for whether a fire will burn with a lot of green grown is usually dependent upon how much dead, dry material from the previous growing season is present.
Green growth can generate copious amounts of dense, choking smoke, especially when there is plenty of dry fuel available.
Also important is how wet the soil is. Wet soil helps keep the fire cooler and helps prevent crown damage. Really dry soil encourages a hot fire that burns down to bare dirt and can do serious damage to desirable species. Higher humidity slows the spread of fire and usually produces a cooler fire but with more smoke. Low humidity does nothing to cool or slow down a fire’s spread.
What time of year you burn is determined by what you want to achieve. For example, cool season grasses green up earlier than warm season grasses. To stimulate the warm season and suppress the cool season grasses in a mixed stand, you want to burn when the warm season has an inch or two of new growth.
Native warm season grass species originated in the North American prairies, which burned occasionally but regularly and as a result, the growth of those species will be enhanced when burned at the proper time.
At the same time of year when fire will benefit warm season grass species, the cool season grasses will normally have four to six inches of new growth and the fire will damage that plant. If you want to stimulate cool season grasses, burn when some new green growth is just starting to emerge.
Other times one may want to suppress both the warm and cool season grass species in order to increase the population of native forbs such as Black Eyed Susan, Coneflower, Compass Plant and so on. To achieve this, the burn needs to be later in the growing season when the undesirable species have more live growth. The time of the burn determines whether the fire suppresses growth for months or years, or if it actually kills the plants. Knowing what species you have, your green up time, what you want to achieve and when to burn is information your local NRCS, SWCD or Extension folks can help you with.
A Personal Fire Experience
When provided with enough incentive, say saving 60 big bales of hay, a shed, mini-van, restored Studebaker, three motorcycles and winter’s supply of firewood, you’d be amazed what two people with scoop shovels can do, even when it’s 2 a.m. in 8 degree January cold with 20 mph winds.
That particular fire was uncontrolled and unexpected, started when a poor kid ran into a tree at the end of my driveway, the vehicle catching fire, killing him and igniting my yard and pasture.
Call it luck, Karma or whatever, my 25-year-old son had gotten up to go the bathroom that night, something his youthful urinary system has never called on him to do before or after that night.
While up, he noticed the glow in the yard heading for the house, he woke me and in a matter of a couple of minutes we were out fighting fire. We got the leading edge of the fire extinguished a mere five feet from the haystack!
Had he gotten up five minutes later, I likely would have lost most, if not all of the above. Once hay bales start burning, there isn’t enough water in the world to put them out, and the strong winds would have ignited everything downwind. The fire department got the rest of the fire put out, but not before burning up fence posts and stockpiled pasture. Encouraged by the low humidity and strong winds behind a cold front immediately passed, the fire was able to advance rapidly across my yard even though the fuel load was very slight.
Had I intentionally tried to burn that area, I couldn’t have kept the fire going but dry or frozen soil, low humidity and wind can radically alter the conditions needed to sustain a fire, something anyone burning wants to keep in mind. Something I can’t get out of my mind is the image of the burned remains of that poor boy.
Originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of Sheep! magazine. Subscribe for more great stories!