“Burn, Baby, Burn” – Anatomy of a Prescribed Burn

A “Prescribed Burn” is an intentional burning of land, usually fields or meadows, that is carried out by qualified, knowledgeable individuals.  In Missouri, where I live, most of the state’s Conservation Areas have employees that have been trained to perform prescribed burns.  In addition to these individuals, the Missouri Department of Conservation has select teams that are available to assist other state areas in performing prescribed burns of their lands (i.e., The Nature Conservancy has some native prairie land in Missouri and the Dept. of Conservation routinely assists the Convervancy by performing Prescribed Burns for them).

Prescribed burns are performed to revitalize native lands.  By burning these areas, invasive plants, as well as non-native plants, are burned off.  This process allows the native species to again flourish in these areas.  Another value of prescribed burning is to burn off heavy growths of small trees and brush that often chokes out everything and creates a thicket that is of little use.  To maintain these areas, regular prescribed burns are necessary, often as frequently as every other year.

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch/photograph a local prescribed burn at one of the local Missouri Dept. of Conservations that I routinely kayak/photograph at.  On a recent morning, while taking my kayak out of the water after spending about 3 hours photographing beavers, a couple of Conservation employees happened to be present, checking out the area by 4-wheeler.  I had met these two individuals just a couple of weeks earlier and we had talked about the wildlife present, and they had given me some tips on where I might find some different wildlife in the area.  Since I was on good terms with them, they informed me that they were going to be joined by more Conservation employees to perform prescribed burns at two different locations and they invited me to photograph the burn, if I wished.  Being a big fan of conservation and since I had never witnessed a prescribed burn up-close, I glady accepted their offer.  So I quickly drove home (~15 minutes away), dropped off the kayak, and picked up a couple of landscape lenses (which I normally don’t carry with me in the kayak).  I then drove back and waited for the fun to begin!

About 15 minutes later, the group showed up.  I didn’t get a head count, but there were probably 8 people who were involved with the burning activity.  This included 3 individuals on 4-wheelers.  Behind the 4-wheelers were small trailers carrying tanks of water (I’m guessing about 75-100 gallons of water in each tank) and portable generators.  These were the “rovers” that constantly drove the roads that surrounded the burn area.  Their job was to keep the fire from “jumping” the roads and starting fires in adjacent areas.  All agents were dressed in bright yellow, for high visibility in the fire/smoke, and each had a helmet with a face protector to help keep the smoke out of their face.

Below are some images I took of the process.  In the first photo, one of the Conservation agents is setting fire to the perimeter area, next to the road on the down-wind side of the area that will be undergoing burning.  A prescribed burn is conducted by first burning back the perimeter of the area; only after the perimeter has been burned off and this perimeter fire has burned down, is the general area burned.  This perimeter fire is set to burn away all vegetation, preventing a fire from going out of control.  In one hand of this agent is the “fire pot” that is used to start the fire and in his other hand is a shovel that can be used to put out a fire if it should flare up too much.

In the next photo, one of the “rovers” has dismounted his 4-wheeler and is checking out the fire next to the road, assuring that the fire does not “jump” the road and move into the field across the street.  Behind this agent is his 4-wheeler with trailer.

In the next photo, one of the agents is checking on the perimeter fire to assure the fire is diminishing at the road’s edge.  Note the perimeter fire is heading inland, towards the general burn area.  This is no problem as more agents are located well behind this area (top of the field in this photo, not visible here) and are waiting for the “Go Ahead” to light the main fire, which will then head towards us and meet up with the shown fire, somewhere in the middle of the field.

In the next photo, you can see that the perimeter fire is well away from the road.  About this time was when the signal was given for the main fire to be ignited.

The main fire has now been set and is racing towards us.  As shown in this photo, some shrubs/small trees seem to have eluded the fire.  I asked one of the agents if they would need to re-burn or even use a chain saw to remove the apparently unburned vegetation.  He said they would not need to perform any more actions.  Although the vegetation appears to have evaded the fire, I was told that the fire gets hot enough that the remaining vegetation is usually affected, although it looks normal to us.  Many times, this vegetation will not be completely killed off, but will be severely “stunted”.  In any event, this area will likely undergo another prescribed burn in 2 years, so the bulk of the area will see rapid “rebirth” of native grasses and plants.

The next photo shows the area after the burn was completed.  A few trees remain, but the vast majority of the area has been “reconditioned”.

And one final, close-up image of today’s prescribed burn:


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