In the midst of a drought, the Conservancy and its contractor, Chloeta Fire, saw an opportunity to burn this month. And that opportunity… was covered in ice. As you can imagine, this was a bit unlike any other burn.
Four Canyon Preserve February 25, 2014
“We took advantage of a break in the weather on February 1 and completed a 475-acre prescribed burn at the Four Canyon Preserve. This work was funded by a ConocoPhillips and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, and it wouldn't have been possible without their help,” said Chris Hise, Four Canyon Preserve Manager. “It's very early in the season to be burning here, but we're trying to stay ahead of a worsening drought situation. I had the odd experience of carrying a drip torch along the frozen banks of the Canadian River. Ice makes a good firebreak.”
So I sat down with Chris to inquire about this odd experience. Here’s what this humble biologist had to say. Why did you decide to burn now? Don’t you usually wait until spring?
From an ecological standpoint, there is no ‘wrong’ time of year to burn in the southern Great Plains. Fire is a natural process that, historically, would have happened year-round in Oklahoma. A lot of the Conservancy’s burning work is done in the springtime for practical reasons, but we do occasionally burn in other seasons.
During droughts, it can be more difficult to control fires and in extreme cases, we may be subject to burn bans by state government. We squeezed this one in to avoid problems down the road.
What do you anticipate for the spring season this year?
Drought conditions are expected to persist through April. It will likely remain dry through our typical spring burn season. Winter is usually a dry time of the year anyway; rainfall typically comes in the late spring or summer. So, even if we weren’t in a drought, we could expect the fire conditions to get a bit worse before they get better. Have you ever burned before when there was ice on the ground?
I burned in a snowstorm once in Iowa and that was an interesting experience, but it was not as cold then as the burn we did on Feb. 1. The temperature never rose above freezing during our recent burn, and that’s a first for me. Generally, we don’t burn when it’s cold out because, obviously we have a hard time spraying water when it’s below freezing. This was a bit unusual in that the conditions were very damp and the chances of having a spot or an escaped fire were quite low. We set up some freeze protection equipment on our trucks so we could spray water if necessary and just went ahead and burned. Do you notice the fire burn differently under these conditions?
Yeah, it was pretty unusual. A lot of the fire behavior indices that fire managers use are typically calculated when you have warmer conditions. So when you start getting temperatures below 35 degrees, you see things that don’t really mesh with fire experience in other times of the year. Funky things happen during cold weather.
Could you describe “funky things”?
Weather affects the way fuels interact with fire. What you see on a warm spring day in May is not what you get on a cold winter afternoon in February. Things that you wouldn’t expect to burn at all under one set of conditions might burn well in a different season, and vice versa.
Did you see shorter/quicker flames?
With the cool and damp conditions, the fire behavior we saw that day was pretty mild. We didn’t see great big flames or anything like that.
So it sounds like the flames would not be as tall or dramatic as flames from a normal fire?
They were (less dramatic), although parts of that burn unit had a lot of fuel and burned fairly well. The Canadian River floodplain is a heterogeneous mix of habitats …you get into old river channels and wetland areas with thick, tall grass, and then you have places that are sparsely vegetated without much fuel at all. So fires in that habitat tend to be ‘spotty.’ From a wildlife perspective, that is what you want, because different species of animals will respond to burned and unburned areas in different ways.
Talk to me about the ice break in the photos… is that the Canadian River?
Yeah… that was the river. It had a little bit of floe ice on it the day we burned … chunks of ice floating on the surface. When I’m talking about carrying a drip torch along the frozen river bank… that was the day after the main burn. I was trying to ignite some areas that didn’t burn the first day and by then the river had developed a coating of ice. A few days later, temperatures dropped below zero and the river froze solid.
How much water was in the river during the burn?
It had normal flow for this time of year. It’s been running well since late last summer. Last year, it was bone dry.
When is your next burn planned?
We hope to burn an additional unit this spring if we can get the right kind of weather. It will include about 3,000 acres of the Preserve.
In an earlier conversation, you said burning was “fun”. What’s fun about it?
Fire is just a fun thing to do. A lot of our habitat restoration work is fairly tedious and kind of slow, and it can take a year or longer to really see the benefits. Fire produces instant results. It’s very rewarding… you get that instant gratification. What/when will be some of the results you have from this burn?
Fire kills invasive trees and shrubs, and helps rejuvenate prairie grasses. Typically, grasslands that are burned in the spring will green up earlier than unburned sites, and you’ll get a nice, lush growth that attracts all sorts of wildlife. When livestock arrive in May, they will really key in on that area. Grazing animals like cattle and bison strongly prefer the fresh, tender grasses you get in burned areas. We’ll see different species of birds, too. What are some examples of different birds you might see?
We’ll see species that prefer short vegetation or bare ground such as upland sandpipers. We’ll also see birds of prey take advantage of feeding opportunities in the burned area. This can actually happen while the burn is progress. Raptors will sometimes circle a fire looking for an easy meal. During a burn at the Pontotoc Ridge Preserve several years ago, Jay (Pruett) and I counted several dozen Swainson’s hawks soaring through the smoke column overhead.
Will any of the May 9 Rock Ridge hike attendees get to see these burn areas?
We won’t see the floodplain unit, but if we’re able to complete the other planned burn, then yes… our attendees will get to experience the results.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.