Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Chelsea’s Sandhills Fire Day

This post was written by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Chelsea and Mary had a busy spring, including quite a few prescribed fires around the state. In this post, Chelsea writes about helping a Sandhills rancher with a successful burn to kill eastern red cedar trees.

Sore legs and blistered feet brought the satisfaction of another mission completed. The dust from over 400 miles of travel and the smell of burnt grass and cedar that had settled on our protective gear was lifted into the air as I hung each set – helmet, radio harness, fire shelter pack – back on its hooks in the shed. The scent of prescribed fire – a mix of sweat, ash and fuel – brought back the excitement I felt during our most recent burn. Despite the still-lingering exhaustion from working hard in hot smoke I ached for another chance to help fill the prairie’s next prescription. I smiled and sighed as I put the drip torches back where they would await their next call to action, standing at attention all the while. The red canisters of fuel once seemed heavy and intimidating, even dangerous. After seven burns I felt an admiration for them, the kind one feels for the tool most trusted to assist with hard work.

A drip torch sits in the grass during a temporary pause in ignition.

The adventure that would spark my romance with prescribed fire began one Wednesday as Mary, Olivia, Nelson and I packed our things into Bubba, our trusty diesel truck. As we headed north, things tucked strategically around the water pump in the bed of the pickup, I was filled with gratitude and excitement. While I have had many such moments thus far in my fellowship, this one was especially invigorating. My coworkers and I were a squad of prairie guardians on the move, called to assist other such units in preserving breathtaking bits of habitat nearly three hours away.

Bubba the truck, full of equipment and supplies.

Our journey brought us to the home of a rancher near Thedford, Nebraska. This prescribed burn would cover an area similar to previous burns, around 416 acres, but held a slightly different significance. Since the land was privately owned, we would complete the mission with the help of local ranchers. They were keepers of Sandhills prairie for whom prescribed fire was a treatment still in the clinical trial phase. The encroachment of cedars threatened the suitability of their lands for grazing, but using fire was a method of tree removal they weren’t very familiar with. The confidence and excited energy of participants in yellow Nomex mingled with the curiosity and uncertainty of those in plaid shirts and baseball caps. Together we ate from pizza boxes piled on the hoods of pickup trucks. With all our bellies and water bottles filled, our newly formed team headed out in a caravan of UTVs and rancher rigs to the staging area of the burn unit.

The line of vehicles heading toward the ignition point.

After some discussion about the fickle nature of the light winds that evening and a subsequent change in location for the burn’s ignition, the trucks and UTVs lined up in their respective positions. Each member of my squad from the Platte River, a land with much less variable topography, would be lighting the fire. Carrying drip torches on foot through hills steep enough to challenge the engines of diesel trucks seemed daunting, but I was excited to work up a sweat in the name of prairie conservation. Even more exciting was the potential to show the local ranchers that prescribed fire was a feasible and effective way to conserve their land for grazing while also maintaining a high-quality habitat for the wildlife of the Sandhills prairie.

As Mary and I climbed the steep hills of the parcel, dragging lines of hot flames behind us, the ranchers laying the wet line ahead of us were learning on-the-fly about how much water is needed to contain such a blaze. They were eager to learn and open to suggestion – “How are we doing? How’s this pace for you?” My experience with previous prescribed burns made me confident in my ability to give them some pointers. The fact that they were asking me for such advice was endearing and profound. A few hours earlier we had been total strangers. Now we were united to address a common concern, however different our reasons for that concern may have been.

Mary, doing some interior ignition, widening the black.

Night had fallen by the time Mary and I brought our lines of fire to meet those of Nelson and Olivia. By completing the ignition of the perimeter from both sides we were able to shift our efforts to monitoring the fire’s behavior as flames closed in around the hilly pasture. Keeping an eye on the parcel was hard to avoid. Its peaks and valleys were striped with glowing flames and dotted with torching cedars. While there had been stressful moments during the four-hour execution of the burn, the apprehension of the ranchers had evolved into enthusiasm for prescribed burning. It was clear that they felt right at home with work that was difficult, demanding, and a bit dangerous. As we discussed our experiences that night, the energy was one of a team who had just won the big game. Exhausted but exhilarated, we chatted for a while, smiling through our soot-smudged faces.

The crew gathers to watch the fire burn itself out.

While I learned so much about the efforts that go into conserving high-quality prairies during each burn this spring, the connection with private landowners created during that Sandhills experience taught me the most. Though the ranchers admitted that burning that night was the most fun they’d had in a while, their willingness to use prescribed fire on their own land would depend on the results. I knew a reduction in cedar density in the burn unit was likely and felt proud knowing I played a part, however small, in sharing conservation-friendly management techniques with a wider audience. In a state where most of the land is privately owned, having such an audience was a profound opportunity.

Photo of the Week – June 7, 2019

This was a great week, during which Kim and I attended the North American Prairie Conference in Houston, Texas. The conference was wonderful, and it was great to meet a lot of new people, including a lot of you who were nice enough to come up and tell me how much you enjoy this blog. Thank you for that.

Tuesday was field trip day, and Kim and I got to travel to a couple sites, including The Nature Conservancy’s Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary. While there, we wandered through some pine savanna habitats and saw a WHOLE LOT of plants and animals that we don’t get to see in Nebraska. If you’re fortunate enough to live close to this property, I’m jealous – I’d love to explore it on a regular basis. It’s a beautiful site, and very well managed.

Longleaf pine savanna is essentially a prairie with scattered trees in it. It’s a fire-dependent plant community, and the Conservancy manages this site with frequent fire to keep brush subdued. I’d’ only seen longleaf along the eastern seaboard prior to this trip, so it was fun to see the more western end of the ecosystem in Texas.

I’m sharing just a small sample of the photos I took during the tour, and it was really hard to narrow the selection down. Just about everything I saw was new, and there were quite a few plants that are apparently endemic to a pretty small geographic area around the site. I wish I could share some good natural history stories about each of these, but the best I can do is pass along identifications generously provided by Matt Buckingham, a fantastic ecologist and photographer who has a blog you should all check out. Here are some images from Sandyland Sanctuary:

I can’t believe how many Mimosa species we saw in Texas. Matt told me which this one is, but I’ve forgotten, and I didn’t remember to send him this photo to identify after the fact.
Alophia drummondii is a gorgeous iris that drew a lot of attention from our tour members.
Young longleaf pines maintain a grass-like growth form for several years which allows them to develop a strong root system but weather frequent fires fairly easily. After those root systems are in place, they can shoot up very quickly to get tall enough to survive fire in their more typical pine tree shape.
This caterpillar and a friend (sibling?) was busily munching on the leaves of a young longleaf pine.
Commelina erecta, a native day flower, was one of the few plants I recognized from the longleaf savanna, though it certainly grows within a different context in Nebraska.
Delphinium carolinianum (Carolina larkspur) is also found in Nebraska, but I’ve only seen it in its white form there, and the flowers are smaller and pretty different-looking.
Callicarpa americana (beautyberry) is a plant Kim recognized from her horticulture background, but a new one to me.
Our tour group, venturing into a wetter portion of the site, where the vegetation grew a little more densely.
This green anole sat patiently while many of the tour members took its photo. I was the last, and it was patient enough to allow me a few quick shots before it finally scurried away.
Sabatia gentianoides (rose gentian) is related to the gentians I’m more familiar with, but is in a different genus.
I bet many of you are like me, and didn’t recognize this as a sedge. It is. Rhynchospora colorata has distinctive white bracts that makes it look more like a wildflower.
When we got into the wetter portion of the site, we started seeing a little more dense understory and more loblolly pines than longleaf pines. (I can’t tell the difference between those trees unless I can see the cones).
Polygala mariana (Maryland milkwort).
Aletris aurea (golden colicroot) was really striking, standing more than two feet tall, with gorgeous yellow flower spikes.
Kaytdid nymph with an ant on its foot for some reason.
We don’t get to see bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) in my area, so it was fun to see them in abundance. This one had turned brown for some reason, which probably wasn’t positive for it, but made for a beautiful image.