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  • Ian Thompson

Our First Controlled Burns

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Fire is one of the oldest and most effective tools that humans have for managing the land. The Indigenous peoples of North America began intentionally setting fire to the landscape 10,000 years ago. The frequency of the burns they set only increased through the centuries. Most of what people think of as the natural landscapes of this continent actually developed in tandem with these human-set range fires.

Why did people burn the land? Fire has a way of renewing things. It removes dead plant growth, releasing the nutrients that were tied up in it. It stimulates the growth of fire-adapted grasses and wild food plants like blueberry bushes. It increases the land's carrying capacity for a number of different animal species. It makes the land easier to walk across. It kills ticks. By keeping dead plant materials from accumulating, periodic range fires also reduce fuel load and prevent catastrophic wild fires.

The effects of a burn are influenced by the season it takes place. Fall and winter burns favor cool season grasses and leafy forbs. Spring burns favor warm season grasses. Summer burns are particularly effective at killing shrubs and young trees. In addition to the motivations noted above, one of the main reasons Indigenous people of the past burned the landscape is because the new plant shoots that come up after a fire contain increased levels of protein, making them particularly good food for grazing and browsing animals. When the animals ate the new growth, the plants would send up more new growth, keeping the animals around for a while and making the recently burned areas good hunting spots for a period of time. Particularly in the case of bison, as the animals repeatedly re-grazed their favorite food plants in the burned area, it eventually depleted the reserves in these plants' roots. Many disturbance-loving plants, are favorites for pollinators, but not tasty to grazing animals (think cowpen daisy). Under grazing pressure, these plants began to out compete the palatable plants. When the grazers' favorite plants became more scarce, they would start to move on to other areas. The burned-then-grazed land would be dominated by pollinator plants for a year or two until the grasses rebuilt their roots and started retaking the landscape again. When dead plant material re-accumulated, the area was ready for another burn to reset the cycle. With different parts of the landscape being in different stages of this cycle at any given time, it meant that the landscape as a whole was incredibly diverse, providing the varied habitats needed for all of the different native animals. For an ecologist's perspective on this, see here. All things together, regular burns caused the prairie and it's fire-adapted plants to expand eastward over time. In the more wooded environments to the east, regular fire opened up the tree canopy, exposing the ground to sunlight, promoting the growth of grasses and other sun-loving plants under the trees.

Developed in sync with the fires set by Indigenous people, most of North America's landscapes are supposed to be dynamic, shifting from year-to year depending on burning and grazing cycles. As the landscape was colonized, fire was suppressed across most of it. Domesticated grazing animals were confined into continuously grazed pastures. Over the generations, the landscape in many areas has shifted either to one of intensive agriculture or to never-burned areas that grow up in dense thickets of brush and trees. The process has happened slowly enough that many people are unaware of it. We learned about it only through studying Choctaw history and learning from people who are working to revitalize native landscapes with fire/grazing.

Managing the land by fire is an almost forgotten part of Choctaw traditional culture, but it is every bit as important as basketry or stickball. The dominant landscapes of the Choctaw homeland including the open mixed woods, the longleaf pine forests, the tallgrass prairie, and the massive brakes of river cane, were all dependent on our ancestors regularly burning the land. The continuance of Indigenous Choctaw culture is dependent on these landscapes. Thus, the continuance of Indigenous Choctaw culture is also dependent on burning the land. The staff of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Forestry Department are unsung heroes, who annually burn hundreds to thousands of acres of Tribally owned land. The US Forest Service does the same thing on large tracts in the Choctaw homeland in the present-day states of Mississippi and Alabama.

We've been trying to do a controlled burn at Nan Awaya Farm for a while now. Twice, our neighbor graciously plowed fire lines for us that we were never able to use. Eight times last year, we scheduled a lowland burn only for the wind, temperature, or humidity to be too high or too low, or for not enough people to be available to help us safely pull it off. This summer, we left three upland pastures lightly grazed in the hope we might get the chance to burn them this winter or early spring. Range fire demands respect. Last month, I wanted to burn a brush pile in one of these pastures. I burned a small circle of grass around it so that the hot fire from the wood wouldn't start a major grass fire. Unfortunately, the little grass fire itself got away from me before I ever lit the wood. It burned up one of these pastures before our local volunteer fire department came and put it out for us. As embarrassing as that incident was, the fire created a black area that bordered one side of a second pasture we had hoped to burn. Two other sides of this second pasture are bordered by a road and driveway. That only left one more side. With the fire department's blessing, Amy and I set about burning the second pasture.

We chose a day with light winds, moderate temperatures and somewhat low humidity. The fire department had advised us to mow a fire break on the fourth side and then to set fire to the fire break itself before introducing the fire to the pasture. We worked in the late morning when the temperature was cool and the humidity relatively high. We kept the fire inside the break using a rake and leaf blower. This fire burned up the remaining stubble and clippings left over from mowing, leaving an area devoid of fuel, which our controlled burn would not be able to cross. We use fire as a tool all the time, but we've never used it to burn a pre-defined shape on the ground like this. The process felt really familiar to both of us. I bet people of the past used a similar technique to burn their gardens in the spring and to build fire breaks around their settlements to keep them from being set on fire by an enemy - As the saying goes, fighting fire with fire.

With the pasture now surrounded on all sides by a fire break, we went to the side nearest our house and set it alight. The fire crept across areas with sparse vegetation and exploded 10-15 feet into the air where there were thick stands of prairie grasses. We walked with the fire as it traveled along the edges of the fire breaks and made sure that it did not cross them. It all went like clockwork.

Burning this pasture created a 700ft wide fire break on one side of the third pasture we had hoped to burn. We went to work on it immediately. To my surprise, the fire was much more aggressive here than in the pasture we had just burned. It took a bit of a fight to keep the fire from crossing the mowed fire breaks in a couple of spots. Then, we had to work quickly using a rake to spread fire along our most vulnerable fire break, in order to have that edge of the pasture burned before the fire could run across the middle of pasture and jump the line behind us. Although challenging, this burn was successful too.

In all, we burned about 15 acres. We did these burns with fore planning and the advice of our fire department. Doing controlled burns is an artform. We've recently joined a local burn association to gain more experience. We'll look into acquiring a water tank to pull behind our tractor for next burn at Nan Awaya.

Here are a couple of before and after shots:

Here are a few close-up images of the fire's effects on different native plants in the same pasture.

Beginning with the top left, the plants are Little Bluestem, Broomsedge Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Persimmon, Yucca, and Eastern Prickly Pear. The fire-adapted grasses go up like torches - they are what made it possible for the fire to carry. It's interesting how two plants that look as similar as Little Bluestem and Broomsedge Bluestem can look so different after they burn. Despite the tops completely burning away, the grasses' growth areas remain intact down near the ground surface. The fire may well have top-killed this charred persimmon sapling, but the roots will send up new shoots in the spring no doubt. The waxy-leaves of the yucca are fire-resistant; scorched leaf tips and last year's flower stalk burning down are the only effects. Although some spines got singed, the waxy surface of this prickly pear's pads protected it in a light area of the burn.

In a few weeks, these burned pastures will transform into green. The fire will stimulate new growth. The bison and horses will love grazing it, but since the plants in these pastures are still recovering from past years of over use, we'll move the herd on to other pastures before they graze enough to deplete the roots of their favorite plants here. We'll see a different plant community than we have in the past, maybe including some remnant, fire-dependent species that we haven't seen before. With the old growth removed by the fire, we'll be taking the opportunity to plant new seeds on the charred ground in the coming weeks. Short and long term, the native plant community that ultimately comes back in these pastures will be healthier and more resilient and diverse than what existed here before the fires.

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Fascinating. Thank you. Like the idea of you having a water tank on hand next time though!

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