Photos of the Week – November 5, 2020

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one looking for a distraction this week. I was lucky to have the chance to help with some prescribed burning at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. The combination of that site and that activity provided a great way for me to escape my own brain. I still didn’t sleep very well, but I got through the days…

A volunteer firefighter got some experience while working on a backing fire early on day one.

Chad Bladow, The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Manager organized and led two prescribed burns that totaled over 1000 acres and three miles of grassland/woodland along the south side of the Niobrara River. Over several years, staff and contractors have been cutting and piling eastern red cedar trees that survived the 2012 wildfire. One of the objectives of this fire was to clean up the piles and downed wood from that work. We also wanted to kill additional trees that had shown up since cutting operations or that were missed because of size or location (on steep slopes, etc.). In addition, opening up the understory habitat of the wooded areas will have multiple benefits for wildlife habitat and the vigor/diversity of the plants growing beneath the trees.

Two igniters were lighting the flanking fires (working into the wind) on the first day’s burn, accompanied by several vehicles – including a giant tanker from the local fire department.

On day one, we burned out a two mile unit that had Sandhills prairie on the south edge and the river on the north. It took the majority of the day, but burned very well with low humidity, warm temperatures, and light winds. Ignition was completed before sundown, but the fire burned (at a much lower intensity) through the night within the center of the unit. The next morning, we did some quick checks of the perimeter to make sure there was no risk of the remaining smoldering trees causing a fire outside the boundaries. Then we started burning the second unit.

As the sun went down, fire was still winding its way through the wooded slopes.
Grassy knobs in the woodland burned fairly cleanly, but the fire effects were more spotty on steeper north-facing slopes.
An aerial view (drone) showing the Preserve headquarters and the first day’s burn unit. You can see an igniter moving right to left at the bottom right corner of the image.
Here is the first day’s burn unit a day later. There was some lingering smoke, but by and large, most of the unit had burned itself out overnight. The Preserve headquarters can barely be seen near the top of the photo.
This is a cell phone photo I took on the morning of the second day while doing some early morning mop up of smoking trees near the edge of the first day’s fire.

Not only did we achieve our ecological objectives for the fire, it was also a great partnership-building experience, with crew members representing several organizations, including state and federal agencies, private conservation groups, a local prescribed fire group, and the local fire department. Coordinating all those people, while following strict COVID-19 safety protocols, was no mean feat, but it all came together beautifully – as did the fires themselves.

Fire backing through grass and trees.
We don’t think fire will have much long-term impact on the abundant smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) on the property, even though it definitely put some heat on those plants.
Many of the eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) in the area had been cut and piled, but some of the remaining trees went up during this fire. (The cedar skeletons nearby are from the 2012 wildfire.)
Nelson Winkel walking through the smoke on day 2.
As the fire in the upland grasslands of the second day’s burn unit came together, it made an impressive smoke plume.
At the end of the second day of fire, the crew gathered to discuss, learn, and celebrate.

Prescribed fire is a lot of work, but it’s also very rewarding when it’s over. Normally, when I’m leading burns, I feel a lot of stress between the time the fire is ignited and when it’s extinguished. However, when I’m just a part of the crew – as I was this week – I can pull back a little and enjoy the experience more. That was really helpful this time around since adding more stress to my life was not what I was looking for.

Hey – no matter whether your favored candidate(s) win or lose, please be kind to yourselves and each other. Regardless of the result, it’s clear we have a lot of major divisions to heal. Please do what you can to help with that, but don’t forget to step away when you need to sink into whatever distractions allow you to maintain your own mental health. Be well, friends.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

14 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – November 5, 2020

  1. The results of the presidential election is … going to be announced after this multi-day commercial break. Brought to you courtesy of the American Advertisers Association.

  2. Great photos as usual Chris. You do a marvelous job and your efforts are appreciated by many. I went through your Square Meter book this first night it arrived and am passing it around to my Family members.
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  3. What differences do you find in Fall burns vs Spring burns?
    As far as effect on plants specifically.
    Is there concern for over winter habitat for animals when burning in fall?
    Also erosion I think would be a concern with fall burns as now the soil laid bare over winter exposed to wind, spring snow melt run off.

    • Counter intuitively, people in the Chicago Area have found that not burning causes erosion. When forests become so dense nothing will grow under the trees then the soil erodes away. In contrast, frequent fire removes the leaf litter letting a carpet of sedges and grasses grow that have dense fibrous roots which prevent erosion.

    • Interestingly, I haven’t seen many differences in plant community response between fall and spring burns, assuming both occur outside the growing season. I’m not saying there aren’t any differences, but they don’t seem to be apparent enough that I’ve noticed them. The soil probably dries out a little over the winter when it’s not covered, but the research I’m aware of in prairies doesn’t show any significant difference in productivity as a result.

      Fall burning certainly changes winter habitat, though the impact varies among species, of course. I wouldn’t want to burn an entire prairie or woodland if it was isolated from other similar habitats. (but that’s true, no matter what season we burn). In this case, the 1,000 acres we burned last week is surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of similar woodland habitat and is on the northern edge of 12 million acres of contiguous prairie habitat. About 30,000 acres of the preserve burned in the 2012 wildfire, plus even more outside our boundaries, but we haven’t seen any species (that we know of) disappear as a result. I’m hopeful that’s an indication that our larger matrix is intact enough that we can absorb 1000 acre scale impacts like fall burns.

      We had significant erosion during the winter/early spring after the late July 2012 wildfire. However, most of that came from places where encroaching trees (eastern red cedar, as well as Ponderosa pine) had shaded out large areas of herbaceous vegetation beneath them. When those trees were killed by the fire, there was nothing left to hold that soil. In the case of this fall prescribed burn, we’d removed most of the remaining bigger trees that weren’t killed by the fire and the herbaceous vegetation had filled in most of those holes. The root systems of those plants should hold the soil pretty well.

      The big advantage to a fall burn, especially in woodlands with oaks, is that oak leaf litter is the most fluffy and flammable right after it drops. That really helps carry fire through places that might not carry fire the following spring, after snow and time compress that leaf layer. In addition, in our specific situation, we have so many acres that need fire, we need to use every available window if we’re going to stay on a reasonable schedule. We’ve not been very good at that in the past, but are working hard to get better.

      Thanks for the questions.

  4. Your post reminded me to burn off the dead sedge leaves in my native plant garden. I did this yesterday. I like the smell after the fire is done. Roasted hay has a nice smell.

    • The Kentucky bluegrass that has invaded my native plant garden is already sending up green shoots after having been burned. Kentucky bluegrass is the only thing that has emerged. If I was more motivated, I would wipe some glyphosate on the leaves. At the moment, I should be able to get rid of the Kentucky bluegrass without harming other plants.

      I know you have problems with Kentucky bluegrass in your prairies. If you could move a weed wiper just over ground level about a week after a burn, you should be able to get rid of a lot of the Kentucky bluegrass without harming other things. That is … if you weren’t already busy with a thousand other tasks.

      I’ll have to see if Canada bluegrass behaves similarly. If it does, maybe a quick emergence could be used to get it controlled at some of the hill prairies.

      This might be worth testing.

  5. Pingback: Photos of the Week – November 27, 2020 | The Prairie Ecologist


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