Prairie fire

Above: A section of the Kansas prairie on fire. The practice helps keep the grazing lands rich and productive.

Below The stately Z Bar/ Spring Hill Ranch at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which examines the ecology and economy of the tallgrass prairie region.

Michael C. Snell photos

Before You Go
For more information about the plein air art event, visit or call Suzan Barnes at the Grand Central Hotel, (620) 273-6763.

For additional information about the Prairie Fire Festival, click on the Web site

Visitor information is available through the Chase County Chamber of Commerce 1-800-431-6344.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information about Missouri through the Reader Service Card online and click on reader resources.

Ranchers in the Flint hills of Kansas burn the prairie to help it thrive, and one community celebrates the phenomenon with a festival

B Y   S A L L Y   M .   S N E L L
he sun rises above the horizon and casts its warm rays on the frost-tinged tallgrass prairie. Near the crest of a hill, a collared lizard climbs up on a ledge of exposed limestone and warms itself in the morning light. A soft wind blows, carrying a scent that interests the small creature. He bobs his head, sniffing agitatedly at the smoky air. The lizard flicks his tail and disappears into a deep crack in the limestone as flame consumes the grass above him. The prairie is on fire.

Many grasses comprise a tallgrass prairie: the towering big bluestem that can grow as tall as a human; prairie dropseed with its scent of buttered popcorn; feathery Indian grass and pale-blue Canada wild rye are only a few. According to the National Park Service, tallgrass prairie once covered more than 400,000 square miles of the North American continent. Only 1 percent remains intact, free of encroachment by forest, plow or development, and the majority is in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

Burn, baby, burn

Ironically, the survival of the prairie is dependent upon its destruction through regular controlled burns. Prairie fires stave off the encroachment of woody plants, and new grasses that grow after the burn encourage grazing species to move into the area. Prescribed burns have cleansed the prairie for centuries before western settlement. The Lewis and Clark expedition witnessed the indigenous peoples intentionally setting a fire “as an inducement for the Buffalow to feed on…” when they wintered with the Mandan in early 1805. Ranchers today continue to practice regular burns in order to keep the grazing land rich and productive.

Prairie burns are not a casual affair.

“We’d like to have at least 5 mph winds and less than 15,” said Mike Holder, County Extension Agent in Chase County, Kan. “You need a little wind to carry the fire across the prairie, and when the winds are between five and 15, the fire is manageable.”

The National Weather Service is consulted to ensure smoke blows away from major roads and highways.

Ranchers inform law enforcement officials which pasture is going to be burned and who is in charge. If the winds change during the burn, troopers and deputies are called in to help “keep the traffic moving through the smoke…and keep them from driving in the smoke when it is not passable,” said Holder. “Once you get the fire started you can’t put it out. It can take hours to put out a fire.”

Research at Kansas State University has shown the best time to burn is between April 1 and May 1.

“The idea is, we burn as close as possible to when the next year’s grass starts to grow so the soil is bare a minimum amount of time,” said Holder. “If you take that old growth off too early, you kind of screw up the coming season’s growing conditions.

“While that dead grass is out there on the prairie, any moisture we get holds it in place and lets it soak into the soil and stores it for next year’s growth,” said Holder.

Without the protective layer of dead grass, water would run off, cause soil erosion, and dirty the water supply.

“Burning too early sacrifices about 20 percent of grass production,” said Holder. “They go to great pains to burn correctly and safely.”

Ranchers use homemade spray rig fire trucks built to get around in the rough pasture conditions, “a man strings the fire with what we call a fire stick,” said Holder, “and then people following on fire rigs put the fire out on the side you don’t want to burn.”

A backfire is built around the pasture perimeter, allowing the fire to burn toward the center. Existing features such as streambeds or roads also help to limit the fire’s progress.

“It’s not just a matter of going out and lighting a match,” said Holder. “It’s kind of a planned attack.”

Celebration of fire

“We celebrate the phenomenon of the prairie fire through the fine arts,” said Sue Smith, proprietor of the Emma Chase Café in Cottonwood Falls, Kan. The 4th Annual Prairie Fire Festival will be held April 9 and 10 in Cottonwood Falls, with special seminars held during evenings leading up to the festival. The seminars were originally held to benefit artists participating in the plein air (open air) event so they would understand what constitutes a tallgrass prairie.

“We felt if a person was going to paint the prairie, just like a person paints a nude, they probably ought to have some knowledge of anatomy,” said Smith.

Other sessions focused on wildflowers and Chase County memories “which were some of our senior citizens–and buddy we have some senior ones around here–and they were just remembering. We asked them questions like ‘what’s your favorite rattlesnake story,’ or ‘what’s your most vivid prairie fire memory,’ and just got these old guys to talking’ and it was a hoot and a half,” said Smith.

Chase County Remembers will be a part of the pre-festival activities again in 2004.

The festival includes almost non-stop music, kicking off with the Prairie Fire Edition of Tallgrass Gospel at the Emma Chase Café Friday night. Saturday events include upscale crafts, displays of fine art by the Flint Hills Art Guild, a Bargello quilt depicting the prairie fire, and “music outside from morning ’til night,” said Smith.

The artist’s eye

For the past two years, a plein air painting event has been concurrent with the Prairie Fire Festival in Chase County.

“But the artists asked that we move it to a later date this year because we burn in late March and early April, and they complained that it was cold and they were painting in smoke,” said Suzan Barnes, proprietor of the Grand Central Hotel and plein air coordinator. So in 2004, the artists participating in the plein air event will paint the greening of the Flint Hills in early May.

“Artists are not usually given access to private ranches in Chase County,” said Barnes, but artists registered for the plein air event have access to designated ranches during the two week event. There is no fee for registration. Artists can participate for two days or two weeks, as they desire.

Artists of every media are invited. In exchange, they are asked to donate at least one painting for an auction to be held the afternoon following the event’s conclusion.

Sixty-five artists participated the second year of the event, double from the previous year. In 2004 they expect even more, and may look at limiting registrants in 2005.

Half of the proceeds of the auction will go toward a Chase County charity, while the other half forms a seed fund to support the event the following year. The auction will be held the afternoon of May 15 at the Prairie Coffee Company.

And no visit to Chase County is complete without a visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Visitors can explore the prairie along two nature trails, learn about the ecology and economics of the region at the ranch headquarters, or take a relaxing bus trip deep into the ranch.

Spring in the Flint Hills is quite the spectacle. Make plans not to miss its beauty.

Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.

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