Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Anne’s Trip to Colorado

A Guest Post from Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

First impressions: Patch-burn Grazing in Short Grass Steppe vs. Mixed Grass Prairie

Our Platte River Prairies here in south central Nebraska are lovely, flowery pastures, but I needed to travel to get a more complete concept of how patch-burn grazing works across different landscapes and precipitation regimes.  It was this drive that brought me to the Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER) in the short grass steppe of Pawnee National Grassland in eastern Colorado.

My two guides, David Augustine and Justin Derner, were kind enough to spend a morning showing me around their site.  First impressions- the obvious: CPER is much drier.  They average 13 inches of rain annually to our 25.  We don’t have much in the way of species overlap between our sites.  Blue grama with small patches of buffalo grass, wheatgrass, and prickly pear seemed to be the dominant community at the CPER pastures we visited.  In comparison, we see big blue stem/switch grass/dozens of forbs/etc etc as the major species in our mixed grass system.

CPER: Another major difference- look at the ground cleared by a small prairie dog colony!

CPER: Another major difference- look at the ground cleared by a small prairie dog colony!  Photo by Anne Stine.

A major management impact of this different precipitation regime is that their sites cannot carry fire year round.  There simply isn’t enough fuel.  Their estimated fire return interval (the average ‘natural’ length of time between burns on a site) is much longer than ours.  The estimate they gave me was 10-40 years.  By comparison, much of the tallgrass ecosystem is believed to have a return interval of approximately 3 years. Luckily for them, the harsher conditions are keeping woody encroachment at bay, so they don’t need to burn frequently.

I spent much of my visit puzzling out the major value of fire to the short grass steppe. The benefits in the mixed grass prairie are dramatic. However, most of the positive impacts of fire that we see here in Nebraska (preventing woody encroachment, changing the balance of power within a plant community to favor forbs) just aren’t evident in eastern Colorado.   As mentioned previously, trees are not a problem in their drier climate, and forbs were largely absent even on burned areas.

Justin and David explained that burns are critical for habitat heterogeneity, particularly for clearing ground to produce ideal habitat for birds like the mountain plover.  They also see a decrease in the amount of prickly pear at a burned site.  Burns remove the spines, and pronghorn come in to forage on them over the winter.  Forage quality of the native grasses also improves after a burn, similar to at our sites, but this is a smaller and more transient effect as distribution of precipitation over time and the landscape takes over as the most important ecological factor.

View of CPER HQ from top of bluff.  Photo by Anne Stine.

View of CPER HQ from top of bluff. Photo by Anne Stine.

I left Colorado with the impression that the mixed grass prairie ‘leans east’, if you will.  It is more similar to the tallgrass prairie than the shortgrass steppe.  It’s as if some precipitation threshold is crossed once you move west of the mixed grass system, and an entirely new set of challenges replaces what we have east of that line.  Here in the mixed grass, periodic, varied disturbance seems to be the key to biodiversity.  In the west, perhaps the periodic, varied change in conditions is embedded within the precipitation regime itself.  As I travel, I will continue to explore the question of how grassland management for biodiversity changes in different regions.

Home.

Home.  Photo by Anne Stine

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If You Play With Fire…

There’s nothing playful about safe and effective prescribed burning.  Too many things can go wrong to take it lightly.  Sometimes, I think people see prescribed fire as something that needs to be done to maintain prairies, but they can’t necessarily point to specific objectives for a particular fire.  Nor can they describe what kind of burning (season, intensity, size, ignition pattern) is needed to achieve those objectives.  Falling into the trap of burning because it seems like the right thing to do leads to two big risks.  First, there’s a good chance that the fires will not be conducted in a way (or at the right time of year) that do much good – and could even be counterproductive.  Second, because prescribed fire can be a hazardous activity, conducting one without clearly defined reasons means taking big risks for no good reason.

A prescribed fire we conducted last week. This one went off without a hitch. Most of them do.

We’ve completed two prescribed fires so far this spring.  As always, we spend way more time planning our fires than implementing them.  That planning starts with setting clear ecological objectives (defining why we’re burning in the first place) which dictate the location, size, season, and even the tactics used during the fire.  Once we know what we’re aiming for, we write a burn plan that can help us achieve that in the safest way possible.  Our plans detail the kinds of weather conditions and tactics needed to be successful, but also spend a lot of time on contingencies.  What will we do if the fire gets away?  What does the surrounding landscape offer in terms of safe areas and threats in the case of an escaped fire.  How will we respond if someone gets hurt?  For me, writing a good burn plan means thinking through all the worst case scenarios.  There’s nothing fun about it.

Unfortunately, even after all that planning, things still go wrong.  Last spring, I wrote about a burn we did in which we ran into repeated equipment issues, and had to shut down for a while until we could get re-equipped and complete the burn.  In another fire last year, I overestimated the strength of our blackline containing the fire, and the wind-driven head fire jumped it in one place, forcing us to quickly chase it down.  This spring, our first prescribed burn started out well, but the wind came up sooner than had been forecast, and we shut the fire down because a Red Flag Warning was issued.  In all of those cases, there were no serious repercussions, and our training and planning helped us deal effectively with unexpected circumstances.  Because we’d planned for each contingency, everyone knew how to react when the time came.  No property was damaged and no one got hurt.

The threat of injury is what makes prescribed fire especially stressful for me.  Between potential equipment mishaps and quickly-changing weather and fire conditions, there are numerous opportunities for someone to get hurt.  So far, I’ve never had anyone get injured on a fire I’ve been a part of, but that fortunate record certainly isn’t making me complacent.  As if I needed a reminder of the danger, one of our crew was helping a partner organization with a fire last week and suffered some slight burns on his neck and face while trying to extinguish a drip torch.  After trying and failing to smother the flame at the tip of the torch with a gloved hand (per protocol) the crew member then tried to blow the flame out, and some of the burning torch fuel splattered onto the cotton bandana around his neck.  Before he could get the bandana off of his head, he suffered small burns in several places.  After a quick trip to a nearby medical clinic, he was fine – though he had to shave off the remainder of his singed beard.

It appears there were several things that contributed to the torch incident, possibly including some issues with the torch itself that caused excessive fuel to build up in the torch’s tip, making it particularly difficult to extinguish.  After the fire was wrapped up there was considerable discussion about what happened, and hopefully we all learned some things that will make us all safer in the future.  Regardless of the cause, however, the aspect of the event that struck me the most was that our crew member was injured doing something he had done hundreds of times before.  It’s sobering to know that something as mundane as extinguishing a torch led to injury, and that it could have been much worse than it was.

Lighting the head fire of our prescribed burn last week. This was the easy part. The planning, training, weather monitoring, equipment preparation, and black-lining were all done. (Not pictured - the knot in my stomach)

I am a strong and vocal advocate for the use of prescribed fire to manage both private and public lands.  On the other hand, prescribed burning is not a sport, it’s a tool, and it’s a tool that we should employ strategically – not for fun, or without specific objectives in mind.  If someone can’t clearly explain what they’re trying to achieve by conducting a particular burn, I don’t know how they can justify taking the risk of dropping a match.  In addition, if some doesn’t have a clear and detailed plan for how to ignite and contain a fire, and how to respond when things go wrong, I don’t think they have any business lighting that fire in the first place. 

I know people that really enjoy conducting prescribed fires.  Frankly, those people make me nervous, especially if they’re in charge.  I don’t dislike prescribed burning, and I get a feeling of satisfaction whenever we wrap one up successfully – especially because I can appreciate the ecological benefits of doing so.  But while there is active fire on the ground, there’s a knot in my stomach, and that knot subsides slowly, even after the last of the smoke has faded into the sky. 

It’s fantastic that the use of prescribed fire is growing among prairie landowners and land managers.  More importantly, the greatly increased availability of training and equipment means that we’re not only burning more acres, but we’re also more sophisticated – and hopefully safer – as we do so.  However, things will still go wrong.  Property will be damaged and people will get hurt.  It can happen during even the simplest fires.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t burn.  It does, however, mean that we should burn only when it can be done safely and only when we can burn in ways that achieve important objectives.  Otherwise, the risk can quickly outweigh the rewards.

Be safe out there…

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You may be interested to read these previous posts about prescribed fire:

The importance of equipment redundancy in prescribed fire.

Why prescribed fire doesn’t contribute to global warming.