Forces of Nature - Part 5
The vast grasslands of the Great Plains would not exist without fire.
Burning is an essential part of prairie life. Prairie fires have existed as long as there have been grasslands. This natural process is a vital part of the prairie ecosystem, but it hasn't always been welcomed or understood by the people who live here.
"Stop the Prairie Fires"
When farmers began settling the Plains, they viewed fires as a danger to be faced, not a tool to maintain the environment in which they lived.
American Indians had burned off sections of prairie for centuries. They realized that fire promoted the growth of new grass attractive to buffalo. But many farmers new to the Plains thought trees, not grasses, were a sign of the land's richness. They believed prairie fires had created the Great American Desert by preventing trees from growing. Burning the prairie was considered uncivilized, and it threatened the houses, barns, and livestock settlers had worked so hard to acquire.
"Stop the prairie fires and you stop drought, hot winds and parched crops. . . . Stop the prairie fires and you produce regular rainfalls. . . . Stop the prairie fires and Kansas is a garden of Eden." --Walnut Valley Times, 1875.
Not all settlers believed prairie fires were bad, though. Early ranchers observed American Indians burning the grasslands and learned that cattle preferred the new growth on burned land. Particularly in the Kansas' Flint Hills, ranchers defied public opinion and even scientific advice to burn the prairie.
Why is burning grasslands so important? Because it helps maintain a healthy prairie ecosystem. 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.
Today, fire is considered an essential tool for prairie management. Particularly during the past 30 years, experts have begun to encourage burning as an important way to maintain the prairie.
Many Flint Hills ranchers burn their pastures every year under a controlled burn--that is, a group of people burn a pasture in a controlled manner after taking into consideration wind direction and speed, humidity, and the location of natural fire breaks. Burn crews typically are 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.
It takes a lot of matches to burn off a pasture. A simpler method is to use a firestick like this handmade one from the Talkington family ranch in Chase County. A firestick is a pipe filled with gasoline that slowly drips fuel from one end. The fuel is lit and the stick is dragged across the pasture.
Patch burning is a type of controlled burn. In patch burning, an area of grassland is fired only once every two or three years. This prevents the growth of invasive trees and shrubs while allowing some land to develop a thick thatch as a refuge for wildlife. This is particularly important for the prairie chicken, a threatened bird native to the Plains. Its mating ritual, called booming, takes place on shorter grass although the bird prefers tall grass in which to hide its nests.
Explore the history of prairie fires through our brief interactive game, On Fire.
This concludes the Kansas Museum of History's online exhibit, Forces of Nature.
- Tornadoes - These storms are a Kansas icon
- Wind - Kansas is a windy state
- Earth - Sometimes our rich soil becomes airborne
- Water - Too much or too little is a problem
- Fire - Grasslands depend on fire
Test your knowledge by playing our interactive games.