Photo of the Week – March 10, 2011

It’s fire season!  Or, at least, it’s the season that many of us start conducting prescribed fires in prairies.  For various reasons, March and April tend to be the months during which the vast majority of prescribed fires take place.  Here in Nebraska, we missed the last big snowstorm that came through, so if the current weather forecasts hold, we hope to start sending smoke into the air next week.

Our technician Matt is enjoying the opportunity to light things on fire. ...sure he is - he's not in charge! I still enjoy prescribed fire season, and feel a sense of accomplishment when we finish one, but it was a lot more fun when I wasn't the burn boss.

Before each spring fire season starts, we get together with local partners and hold a refresher course to go over safety procedures and generally remind ourselves that prescribed fire is a complicated and dangerous undertaking.  One of the most useful – and goofy – parts of that refresher course is the sand table exercise, where grown-up biologists from multiple agencies and organizations play make-believe in sandboxes.  We lay out hypothetical prescribed fire situations, complete with roads, houses, people, equipment, and hazards, and then run through various scenarios to give everyone a chance to think about how they’d respond in real life.  Once you get over the initial silliness of the idea, it’s actually very useful.

Staff from the Nature Conservancy and partner organizations and agencies participate in a sand table exercise to simulate prescribed fire scenarios.

Because prescribed fire is not something to take lightly, it’s important to make sure the objectives are being met when a fire is conducted.  The success of a fire shouldn’t be measured by the percentage of a grassland that turns black, but by whether or not objectives for habitat manipulation, plant community impacts, etc. are met.  Remember that prescribed fires can be conducted during any season of the year, and that it can be good to shake up the timing – and other aspects – of your fires to ensure that you don’t always favor the same species (at the expense of others).  See an earlier post on this subject here.

Above all – be safe out there!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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8 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 10, 2011

  1. Chris Pague says:

    Our forecasts for the next few days are maddeningly high winds on top of some pretty dry grasslands. Good luck to the east!

    Chris

  2. Chris Zeiner says:

    Hey Chris, hope your burn season goes well, we are gearing up and getting things ready this week, and hoping to get started next week in Northern Illinois as well. It really is a fun time of year, it certainly sparks are crew after that first line goes in, it makes that long, hard winter seem like a distant memory (except when we get that late March snowstorm).

    Chris Zeiner
    McHenry Co. Conservation Dis.

  3. Chris Pague says:

    Be safe and do well!

  4. Tim Boucher says:

    Hi Chris

    Had a great (short) visit with Jim at Niobrara – but no burn due to wind and still snow of the ground… plan to visit again in early May. I see that you have some plant data (previous blog post) – have you used any satellite imagery to see larger landscape differences? Might be something we can look into.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Tim, I’d be happy to talk to you about this. We have a private-lands program that builds off of our TNC ownership/stewardship program and exports ideas to private lands along the Platte. The program is a little less active right now as we (mostly not me) figure out the next direction to build upon successes to this point. Rich, who runs the program, has done a lot of thinking and work about how to measure success. Call sometime – or stop by in May.

      Also, I can help you find other projects similar to that of NVP if you’re looking for more. There are some great examples in the Great Plains.

      Chris

  5. Karen Fillman says:

    I have asthma and have been up all night because the burning. I can’t breathe. Where can we find out the schedule for burns in Nebraska? Doesn’t anyone care about air quality/people with health issues?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Karen, I’d like to hear more about your specific situation. Was there a specific prescribed fire that is causing you problems or an elevated level of something in the air this time of year? Where do you live?

      Air quality is certainly an issue with prescribed fire, but fires are also a critical part of the ecosystems we live in. Woodlands, prairies, and many other ecosystems rely on periodic fire to maintain their species and functions. In states where there are high numbers of people and also lots of prescribed burns there are limits to the amount of total smoke that can be put into the air daily – and those of us who burn have to get an air quality permit. Only a certain number of acres can be burned daily.

      It’s a tricky issue, and certainly not one to be taken lightly. Let me know more about your situation and I can give you more information. You can reply here or just send me an email to my tnc.org address (chelzer@…).

      Chris

  6. Karen Fillman says:

    Hi Chris, I just saw your post, how funny after all this time. I can’t see your entire email and don’t want to say where I live on a public page. I was living in a beautiful older home that was restored, however smoke seemed to leak right into it. I had to move because of the issue. I’m in a newer house that is much tighter, so I just don’t go outside when there is burning. However, I wrote a letter to the editor about these and heard from a number of people in Lincoln who are having a terrible time with smoke. It gets in your house no matter how new because it’s less than .1 micron. If you have asthma or any pulmonary issues it can, and will, land you in the E.R. Many times I mistakenly go out to Wal-Mart or something and find there’s smoke everywhere and I have to dash back home. People call to warn me when there’s a burning. It really messes up your life. I realize it’s good for the ecosystem, but it’s really bad for the human system.

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