Flint Hills Firestick
Flint Hills ranchers manage the prairie with fire using these homemade tools.
"Farmers and ranchers in the Flint Hills of Kansas have, in opposition to popular opinion and, until a couple of decades ago, in defiance of scientific advice, deliberately set the prairies ablaze."—Jim Hoy, The Kansas School Naturalist, 1993
The world's largest remaining stand of tallgrass prairie is in a region of Kansas known as the Flint Hills. Here, ranchers manage the grasslands with fire. Often using homemade tools such as this firestick, they burn off old dry grass to encourage new growth. It is a practice dating back to the earliest human occupation of the Great Plains.
Over 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie once stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding huge herds of grazing animals such as mammoth and bison. Fires caused by lightning strikes burned unchecked across the great prairie for centuries. When humans first occupied these plains, they noticed animals were attracted to the fresh green shoots that sprouted quickly on the charred prairie. Native American tribes began setting fires deliberately to attract the herds and make it easier to hunt.
White farmers who started settling the plains in the 1850s had a different attitude about fire. While many Plains Indians were nomadic, settlers established homesteads that were difficult to protect from the fierce, fast-moving blazes that destroyed everything in their path. Many people also believed the western climate could be made wetter, like the East, by planting trees and crops. Trees added moisture to the soil (according to the theory), therefore, fires had to be prevented because they destroyed trees. This notion was reinforced by agricultural experts and newspaper editors--"Stop the prairie fires and Kansas is a garden of Eden," proclaimed the Walnut Valley Times in 1875. For many decades, then, farmers suppressed prairie fires.
Ranchers in the Flint Hills were the exception to this rule, continuing to burn against the advice of experts. Like the Indians, they observed cattle not only preferred new green shoots but also gained weight faster. So while most of the grasslands around them were being plowed up or paved over, Flint Hills ranchers preserved their patch of prairie--with fire.
It was slow in coming, but eventually scientific evidence supported this practice. As early as the 1920s, studies showed that fire actually was beneficial--even essential--to the prairie. Experts began to encourage burning, particularly during the past 30 years, finding that unburned prairie is quickly taken over by non-native trees and shrubs. Fire controls these invasive plants because their shallow roots are damaged by its intense heat. Native grasses, on the other hand, are protected because of their deep root systems (up to 12 feet long in some cases). Flames also remove the heavy mulch of dead foliage that accumulates above-ground and hampers native grasses from sprouting in the spring. In short, fire is vital to a healthy prairie ecosystem.
Many Flint Hills ranchers conduct controlled burns in their pastures every year. "Controlled" simply means they consider wind direction and speed, humidity, and fire breaks before burning a parcel of land. Often burn crews are made up of neighbors working together to keep the fire under control. A minimal crew is four people--one to light the fire, two to operate a water sprayer (preventing the fire from burning in the wrong direction), and another to ensure all flames are extinguished after the blaze has passed. Recently, Flint Hills ranchers have experimented with "patch" burning, dividing pastureland into zones and burning each zone only once every two or three years. This allows some land to develop a thick thatch as a refuge for wildlife, while still preventing the growth of non-native trees and shrubs. Patch burning benefits wildlife, such as the prairie chicken which requires tall (unburned) grass for its nests.
Over the years, ranchers have used a number of different methods to set the prairie ablaze. In the beginning, they simply dropped matches onto the grass. They later appropriated ready-made tools such as welding torches and even flame throwers. Today, many ranchers use a homemade device unique to the Flint Hills, a firestick or firepipe. This is simply a long steel pipe filled with gasoline and capped at both ends. The pipe's threads are scored at the working end, causing it to slowly dribble fuel. The dripping end is lit and the stick is dragged across the pasture (usually behind an all-terrain vehicle), lighting the grasses on fire as it passes. Explosion isn't a risk because oxygen cannot enter the pipe.
Firestick design varies somewhat from rancher to rancher. Tracy Talkington made the device pictured here for use on the Chase County ranch he managed with his brother. Tracy donated it to the Kansas Museum of History in 2007. The Talkington family has been ranching in the Kansas Flint Hills for over 50 years. They cooperate with neighboring ranchers in patch burning their properties every spring.
For more on the Kansas Flint Hills, see "Splendor of the Grass" in National Geographic.
Entry: Flint Hills Firestick
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2008
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.