Portrait of a Summer Prairie Burn

Last week, we conducted two small prescribed fires at our Platte River Prairies (25 acres and 12 acres). Well, when I say WE, I mean the crew of Nature Conservancy and partner staff, who actually did the work. My job was to just photograph the event for educational purposes, including this blog post, which is intended to explain what summer prescribed fires look like and why they are used.

Fire photographer is definitely my favorite role on a prescribed fire. The stress level is very low compared to my usual role of burn boss. Instead of managing a complex operation consisting of numerous crew members and lots of potential risks, I pointed a camera at those people and pushed a button many times. I also flew a drone around a little. Low stress.

So – why would we burn a prairie in August? Also, do prairies even burn when they’re that green? Both are good questions. The answer to the second is yes, as long as there is enough dry vegetation from previous years’ growth to fuel the fire. The above video shows what one of the prairie burn units looked like about an hour before we lit it on fire. The image below shows a cross section of that prairie’s vegetation – see the layer of dead brown grass at the base of those green plants? That’s what carried the fire.

A layer of thatch (previous years’ growth) at the base of green prairie plants.

The ‘Why?’ question is more complicated. We had a couple objectives for last week’s burns. One objective was to experiment with growing season fires as a way to control woody encroachment by eastern redcedar, dogwood, and other shrubs and trees. We, like many others, are struggling to understand and control the flood of woody plants that can swamp out prairies.

In some places, summer fires apparently do a decent job of setting back re-sprouting deciduous species like dogwood and sumac and killing non-resprouting species like eastern redcedar. My limited experience with summer burns has not given me a lot of confidence that mid-to-late summer fires do much long-term damage to deciduous shrubs in this part of the state, but I need more data points. Plus, I don’t really have a lot of better options to suggest.

One of the two line crews goes over maps, plans, and assignments prior to ignition. The two line crews ignited in opposite directions as the burn was conducted.

A second big objective was to use a combination of summer fire and cattle grazing to diversify both the habitat (vegetation structure) and the plant composition of the two prairies. Last week’s burns should have a pretty strong negative impact on the vigor of warm-season grasses like big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass, which were just beginning their flowering period. It will also have similar impacts on wildflowers that haven’t yet wrapped up their growth cycle for the year. The temporary suppression of those species will open up some space for other plants who don’t normally compete well with those big plants.

In addition, both prairies we burned have cattle in them, and as the new burned patches (which make up small portions of each site) start to green up, cattle will quickly shift their grazing to that lush green growth and start grazing it hard – especially the grasses. In this case, we expect much of that grass to consist of fall-growing (cool-season) species, including lots of smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass. Without grazing, summer fires around here tend to shift the balance of power to those invasive grasses, which can then crowd out the wildflowers we’re trying to encourage. Cattle grazing can negate that shift of power by keeping those invasive grasses short, giving wildflowers a break from competing with both warm-season and cool-season grasses, and allowing them to really thrive for a year or two.

Both these prairies are being managed with patch-burn grazing, and both have patches that were burned back in the spring of this year. Cattle have been grazing those burned patches intensively, but should now shift at least some of their attention to these summer burn patches for the rest of this year and until more patches are burned sometime next year (probably early or late spring). The combination of spring-burned/grazed patches, summer-burned/grazed patches, patches recovering from previous burns/grazing, and fully recovered patches creates a broad array of habitat structure for prairie animals – vertebrates and invertebrates. It also creates a wide variety of growing conditions for plants, each of which favors a different subset of the plant community. The result is the kind of shifting mosaic of habitat and biological diversity we’re shooting for.

Lighting the backing fire. The backing fire is the slow moving fire that is allowed to burn into the wind but is prevented from running downwind by a mowed break that has also just been sprayed with water to keep it from burning.

Like most prescribed fires, our summer burn operations began by lighting a backing fire on the downwind edges of the burn unit. A mowed firebreak helped to keep the fire from being able run downwind like it wanted to, and crew members sprayed water on the mowed grass and the edge of the fire to further control it. Since they couldn’t move downwind, the flames just backed slowly into the wind, creating an ever-widening zone of black ash. Because all the grass within those black zones burned, the zones created effective barriers to the head fire, which was ignited later and extinguished itself when it ran into the black.

Here, Amanda is coming through on a UTV and spraying water on any little bits of fire that might try to burn through the wet mowed grass of the fire break.
Cody is widening the black zone with more backing fire.

Once there was a solid line of black along the entire edge of the burn unit, crews started lighting into the wind, still following the edges of the mowed fire breaks. A flanking fire has a little more energy to it than a backing fire because the wind can push it a little more, but because the flames aren’t being pushed directly into the break, they are even easier to control than they are on a backing fire.

Amanda puts down a ‘wet line’ ahead of Mallory, who lights a flanking fire behind her. A UTV follows further behind to make sure all the flames stay inside the breaks.

Once both the backing fire and flanking fires were lit and nice wide black zones were created, the crews finally lit the upwind edges of the fire and let the wind push the flaming front (head fire) through the unit until it hit the black zones and put itself out. The speed of that head fire is much slower on a summer fire than on a spring fire, but the fire still moved steadily.

The head fire is what consumes the majority of the prairie inside the burn unit. It’s also the hottest and most showy part of the fire.

Most photos you see of prescribed fires come from the head fire. That’s because the flames are most spectacular at that stage, but also because crew members have time to pull out their cameras to photograph the fire. The hard work to create the black zones downwind is all done, so all that’s left is to watch the head fire as it makes its way to the black and dies from a lack of fuel. Head fires during a summer burn tend to be less spectacular than those seen during the dormant season when all the vegetation is dry, but we still saw some pretty intense flames last week.

The head fire burns through dense prairie grass and some annual sunflowers.
Flowering big bluestem was surrounded by smoke right before it was consumed by flame.
Flames make their way through stiff sunflower, goldenrod, and other prairie plants.
We made impressive smoke plumes during the head fire phase of each burn. On the other side of that smoke are the wide black zones where the fire burned itself out.
The fire burned the majority of the prairie, but scattered patches of plants remained after the head fire passed. That created some welcome patchiness within the unit and also provided some potential refuges for small animals both during and after the fire (in addition to the refuges created by the majority of the same prairie that wasn’t burned).

Importantly, there are some obvious negative impacts that can come from summer fires. You may have read the post I wrote a couple weeks ago about the tradeoffs involved in the use of any prescribed fire. Because you can go back and revisit that post, I’ll avoid repeating everything I said back then. However, it’s worth re-stating that summer fires – as with any other prescribed burns – need to be planned thoughtfully to avoid wiping out entire populations of potentially vulnerable species of plants or animals. Leaving lots of unburned refuges around the burned area – and, ideally, within it too – is critically important. A summer burn should always cover a relatively small proportion of the total prairie habitat within a management unit unless there are clear and well-considered objectives that outweigh the ecological risk of larger fires.

Crew safety is also an important factor when burning in the summer. When air temperatures are hot and the fire is even hotter than that, crew members can easily get overheated. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are constant threats that need to be monitored and mitigated for. That’s another good reason to stick to smaller burns that don’t take all day. In addition to the heat, smoke from summer fires is also intense, so making sure nobody spends long periods of time in that smoke is really important.

An eastern redcedar begins to burn as the flames run past it. That tree is probably good and dead now.
These dogwoods were almost surely top-killed by the fire. Will they bounce right back next year? Probably. We’ll see. Either way, we’ll enjoy the habitat and plant diversity impacts.

That said, burning in the summer is a way to extend the window for getting prescribed fire done throughout the year, which can be really helpful when fire is a major tool for managing prairies. Our spring fire seasons are often windy and wet (except when they’re windy and dry), and we rarely feel like we get enough burning done. Burning in the summer and fall can help make up for that – recognizing, obviously, that those burns will also have some different impacts than spring fires.

Most importantly, we need to keep learning about the effects of summer fires on woody encroachment, plant composition, and habitat diversity. There are too many challenges in prairie conservation for us to rely only on a few old strategies. We’ll be watching the results of last week’s burns closely and learning from whatever we see. Then we’ll adjust as needed and keep moving forward. Just like always.

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.

18 thoughts on “Portrait of a Summer Prairie Burn

  1. Thanks for the photos and descriptions. I burn hundreds of acres of native tallgrass prairie at a giant NASA site here in Ohio; but have never done a summer burn; was never sure about the dense clouds of smoke that would be generated by the green vegetation. Here, we burn only on low-wind days, to loft the smoke vertically. Local and state officials (understandably) don’t like prairie smoke rolling across the landscape near the ground.

    Our burns are almost universally in spring, February through April, before green-up. We wait for a few dry days of 50-degree temps, which dry up the vegetation sufficiently to carry a hot fire. The heat both lofts the smoke, and (our goal) singes and sets back the invading woodies — of which here in Ohio we lots of. We get 40 inches of rain; without fire woodies in three to five years over-run our prairies.

    Thanks again; have never seen a summer burn. Nice work.

  2. Thanks Chris for another really interesting post. I will be very interested to see the results of the burn. All the research that I have seen in South Africa and Australia indicates that growing season burns really set grasslands and savannas back- at least if the aim is to maintain a good stand of perennial grasses. As you acknowledge there are different objectives and trade-offs with all fires and every situation is different, so I will be watching the results with interest. BTW I highly recommend checking out the long term fire research just published in the African Journal of Grass and Forage Science by Everson et al.
    Everson CS, Everson TM, Morris CD (2021a) The population dynamics of four grass species in relation to burning in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. African Journal of Range and Forage Science 38(1), 23-38.
    Everson TM, Everson CS, Morris CD (2021b) How stable is the tuft structure of a mesic Drakensberg grassland under various burning regimes? African Journal of Range and Forage Science 38(1), 14-22.
    Morris CD, Everson CS, Everson TM, Gordijn PJ (2021) Frequent burning maintained a stable grassland over four decades in the Drakensberg, South Africa. African Journal of Range and Forage Science 38(1), 39-52.

    • Thanks Peter, and especially for the recommendation of that new literature. The objective here IS to set back the prairie, at least some of the dominant species, but only temporarily. We use grazing in a very similar way. Suppressing the ability of the more powerful plant species to dominate the community can provide windows of opportunity for other plants and help keep them around so they’re available when needed. And, of course, creating varied habitat structure, including swaths of bare or sparsely-vegetated ground is important too. But after we set the prairie back, we let it recover, so all those populations negatively impacted by the fire and/or grazing have time to recover.

  3. I have only been a volunteer involved in 21 burns here in Wisconsin (some with TNC, but most with Prairie Enthusiasts and Ice Age Trail). So far I have not done any summer burns, as we mostly do spring and a few fall burns, but I know they have talked about past ones. It is good to hear your detailed descriptions of the hows and whys of your burns, and I look forward to hearing the results of this burn in the future.

  4. Don’t see a major problem with a summer fire if done very rarely.
    But the most telling thing here is just how increasingly complicated everything is.

    • A rare and infrequent prescribed summer burn is in effect mainly the same as a historic wildfire. Nothing wrong with a natural process.

  5. I manage a nature preserve in SE Wisconsin and am very interested in changing up out burn timing as to encourage different vegetation types. This past year we have spotted numerous Rusty-patched bumblebees in areas that were on our burn rotations. Do you have any guidance or expertise as to effects of prescribed fire on bumble bee populations? I am afraid that with the presence of these federally endangered species that our burn window is closing rapidly and only dormant season burns will be warranted. Any advice would be appreciated! Keep up the great work.

    • Hi Nick,
      I don’t know enough about the natural history of the rusty-patched bumblebee to give you good advice on that particular species, so take that into account here. Growing season burns are always a tricky decision because you’re trying to manage for the long-term quality of the habitat, knowing there might be short-term negative impacts to some of the species you’re trying to help. Most bumblebees range pretty far from their nests, so if a summer burn doesn’t take out their nest (and that depends heavily on whether it is above or below ground), and is small enough that lots of other flowery habitat exists around the burn, I wouldn’t think it would be much of a problem for those bees. The individuals should be able to get out of the way just fine.

      If you’ve not burned in the summer before, I’d encourage you to try a really small example your first time – especially because you have specific concerns about possible impacts. Even a half acre burn or so would give you a pretty good idea of how the plant community will respond, and since that’s your objective, you could evaluate those results on a small scale and see if it looks like you’re getting what you want. If you are, you could try a bigger patch next year. If the burn doesn’t do what you’d hoped, that makes your decision easier and the rusty-patched question is moot.

      Either way, I think it’s great that you’re looking for alternative management options. Keep that up and share what you learn with others!

  6. Thanks been part of hundreds of burns over my 50 years of burning but never have done a summer burn des make lots of sense. Will be great to follow up on , please keep us informed .

  7. Wouldn’t a summer burn most replicate a lightning fire in Nebraska? Majority of our precip is summer thunderstorms, regardless of where in the state. If after bird nesting season, I see advantage of killing cool season grasses and burning those *##%* seeds of annual bluegrass and brome. Also, given our very dry winters, why are winter burns not done to remove debris and kill cedars? Just some thoughts.

    • Laurie, yes summer is when most lightning fires happen, but that’s not necessarily when most historic fires happened in prairies. People were a major force in igniting prairie fires and lit them whenever it made sense for their objectives. More importantly, our fire regimes today need to be designed around the specific objectives we have. I don’t think the summer fires we did this year will have much impact on cool season grasses, but the cattle grazing following up on them should. The cool-season grasses were mostly dormant at the time of the fire and the warm-season grasses were flowering, so they’ll likely take a bigger hit (not sure how much impact we had on seeds). Fall cattle grazing, though, will hit those cool-seasons pretty hard and we can follow that up with spring grazing next year. Winter burns are definitely a good possibility and something that is done at some sites. We just visited Konza Biological Station last week and looked at their winter burns, which looked very good! Thanks for the questions.

  8. Pingback: Summer Fire Follow-Up | The Prairie Ecologist

  9. Where I am (SE Australia) we burn our grasslands mostly in spring and Autumn – summer is usually too hot and dry to do it safely/comfortably. One of the key differences in technique (in ecological burns, not necessarily fuel reduction burns) is that we mostly use backing/flanking fire. It’s slower but it seems to burn a little hotter as it dwells in one spot for longer. That gives a cleaner burn to remove more accumulated thatch etc. But in other respects very similar methods! cheers

    • Burning in winter is obviously the safest time of year. But unfortunately not possible in many parts of the world, like in large parts of Europe, which is why it traditionally was done in spring by European farmers. But that’s no reason to do the same in other places with different possibilities.

      • Winter is great for a low-impact “cool” burn, but often too wet here! But it depends a lot on which season most of the rain falls. Up the eastern coast of Australia rainfall is summer-dominant, so a winter or early spring burn could be quite doable.

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