Fire!

It’s not a four-letter word if you are trying to maintain high-quality habitat.

It’s a prescription for healthy wildlife

A drip torch is an indispensable tool for setting fires quickly and efficiently, allowing land owners to conduct controlled burns with fire. The Burn allows Nutrient Cycling, Invasive Plant Displacement and Healthy New Growth, and is a Prescription for the Health of Fish, Flora, Fauna and Wildlife. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

They probably didn’t understand the role of fire in nutrient cycling, but they knew that fire renewed landscapes.  They might not have known that periodic removal of dead vegetation from ground level makes it easier for quail to move and find food beneath the protective canopy of new growth, but you can bet they knew that bobwhite cocks called more often on land that had been blackened by fire the previous spring.

Modern-day land managers have new reasons for using fire.  Introduced plants like fescue grass, bush honeysuckle and sericea lespedeza can displace native flora, turning once-productive fields and forests into wildlife deserts.  When applied at the right time of year, fire is a powerful tool for controlling these pests and improving hunting.  In marshes, fire releases nutrients and sets back cattails and other native plants that can blanket wetlands, making them useless to mallards, Canada geese and shorebirds.  Invasion by woody plants is a problem faced by prairie and wetland managers alike, and here again, fire is a highly effective process treatment.  Fire also is less expensive than mowing, disking or other mechanical methods of creating the patchwork of exposed water and vegetation of different heights that spells “H-O-M-E” to migrating wildfowl.

Despite the brisk morning air, my back was starting to sweat as I stepped lively along the edge of 20 acres of tinder-dry foxtail, cordgrass, ragweed and fescue grass.  Moments later, the breeze picked up and heat blazed on the exposed back of my neck.  A growing roar told me I needed to pick up the pace, and soon I was almost trotting as I trailed a drip torch behind me.  Another 200 yards and I closed a circle of flame around the field.  I traded the torch for a gas-powered leaf blower to snuff out errant fires kindled by embers carried aloft on the wind.

One key to controlling a prescribed fire is starting with a backfire on the downwind side and then encircling the area with flame, so it burns itself out somewhere in the middle.  Jim Low Photo

Such spot-over fires were few, thanks to careful planning.  With time to enjoy the results of our work, my partners and I pulled out cell phones for photos and video of the spectacle.  Flames leapt 50 feet in the air, creating a true fire storm.  The plume of smoke from our little field soared thousands of feet into the cloudless sky.  Eleven-year-old Emmett Wright was too awed by the power of the blaze to do much besides repeatedly exclaiming, “Whoa!”

Within minutes, the field that had been clogged with dead vegetation was a study in black and gray.  A casual observer might think torching a field was easy or irresponsible.  This fire was neither.  The wide swaths of bare ground surrounding the field were the result of year-round work, mowing and re-mowing to create fuel-free zones capable of stopping a fire after its work was done.  Our burn boss, Emmett’s grandpa, Brad Wright, pored over weather forecasts for weeks, watching for a combination of wind speed and direction and relative humidity that would allow us to burn several sections of our 200-acre duck and upland game hunting club without endangering neighboring property.

There were false starts.  We set a burn date two weeks earlier, only to have our plans ruined by a sleet storm that blew up at the last minute.  We were ready to burn again the following week, and again, the forecast seemed perfect.  But two days beforehand, the U.S.  Weather Service revised the forecast to include strong, gusty wind and dangerously low humidity.  Officials in neighboring counties issued burn bans.  Starting a fire under those conditions would have been reckless and could ruined the reputation we have been re-building with the Chariton County Fire Department since an unfortunate incident a few years ago, which we no longer mention – except to razz Brad.

But last Saturday was finally right.  We would have preferred a southerly wind, which would have allowed us to burn all our upland acres and most of the marsh.  As it was, we got about half the upland and a third of the marsh burned.

You might wonder why we would give up a Saturday to burn a bunch of grass and cattails.  In a word, “habitat.” We want our 200 acres to be as attractive and productive as possible for ducks, geese, quail, rabbits, deer, turkey, beavers, muskrats, otters, herons, snipe, bass, catfish, and the whole array of wild things that inhabit healthy land and water.  One of the surest ways to achieve this is with carefully planned burning.

The human inhabitants of North America have used fire in this way from time immemorial.  The first Americans knew that burning let the sun warm the ground earlier, and that deer, turkey, elk and bison would quickly arrive to take advantage of the resulting flush of succulent new growth.  They probably didn’t understand the role of fire in nutrient cycling, but they knew that fire renewed landscapes.  They might not have known that periodic removal of dead vegetation from ground level makes it easier for quail to move and find food beneath the protective canopy of new growth, but you can bet they knew that bobwhite cocks called more often on land that had been blackened by fire the previous spring.

Even a relatively small fire seems impressive close-up, or when you see the plume of smoke from a distance. Always notify fire officials ahead of time, or you might be billed for an unnecessary visit when neighbors call 911.  Jim Low Photo

Modern-day land managers have new reasons for using fire.  Introduced plants like fescue grass, bush honeysuckle and sericea lespedeza can displace native flora, turning once-productive fields and forests into wildlife deserts.  When applied at the right time of year, fire is a powerful tool for controlling these pests and improving hunting.  In marshes, fire releases nutrients and sets back cattails and other native plants that can blanket wetlands, making them useless to mallards, Canada geese and shorebirds.  Invasion by woody plants is a problem faced by prairie and wetland managers alike, and here again, fire is a highly effective process treatment.  Fire also is less expensive than mowing, disking or other mechanical methods of creating the patchwork of exposed water and vegetation of different heights that spells “H-O-M-E” to migrating wildfowl.

Fire is an important part of management plans that the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped us develop for our marsh, prairie and woodland acres.  Because it’s part of a formal plan, such use of burning is usually called “prescribed” fire.  Learning to burn safely and effectively isn’t simple.  That is why MDC offers prescribed fire workshops throughout the state each year.  With the knowledge gained in these workshops, and with management plans prepared in cooperation with wildlife professionals, you can make your little bit of hunting heaven the best it can be.  To learn more about the possibilities, visit MDC’s web page for private landowners.

What looks like utter devastation rapidly turns into a verdant field that draws wildlife like a magnet. Jim Low Photo