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Prairie Burn, 2011
We did not burn any section of the prairie last year so since the beginning of April we have waited for the snow to melt, the rain to dry, and the wind to slow down.  I worried that a few warm days would bring too much young growth and it would be too late to burn the expanse.  This year the most unusual and spectacular event of the year was slow in coming.  We put notices of a coming burn in all the mailboxes of neighbors nearby.  The professional burners were on the ready but nature was not cooperating.  The township fire department will not give permission to burn unless all the conditions are right.  So we make our best guess but then wait for the last minute message, “It’s a go!”
Many friends have mentioned that they would really love to watch a burn.  I have emails and telephone numbers handy to send out the alert as soon as we know the day.  But even then, the precise time is never known until the burn crew, dressed in bright yellow suits and protective headgear, begin to torch the perimeter.  Then even the slightly soggy grasses, mostly bent low to the ground catch fire quickly and the flames spread under the watchful eye of the pros.  The fire laps into the air sending huge towers of billowing smoke upward.  In moments the “thatch” gives itself to fire and then smolders into ash.  In less than a half hour, nearly nine acres of last year’s prairie grasses blacken the earth on one side of the driveway. 
We had a commitment away from our home on the 4th of May.  When we got the word that the burn was on, I knew one of us had to go and one stay at home.  I got the short straw.  I hoped against hope that the burners would start late and I’d get to see some of it.  They did start later than planned but when I drove in, I saw no fire, only the burners retreating and huge dust devils swirling the ash upward.  The ground was black and hot underfoot.  As beautiful as the burn is to behold, the residue is hard to look at.  For the next three weeks I’ll look over that part of the land with sadness.  And then, as if by magic the black will, like a chameleon, turn green, fertilized by fire.
A few days after the burn that I missed, a group of kids came for a day to explore the land.  They were full of questions.  “Why?”  “We learned this from the Indians.  They knew that their crops grew better after a wildfire so they decided to start burning small plots.  Now we know that ash is natural fertilizer, which draws the sunlight to the earth and encourages growth.  The native plants with their long roots survive the burn, but the shallow-rooted invasives plants die back.  By burning only one section at a time, all the little critters can scurry away from the heat to new habitats.”  The kids all want to watch a burn some day.  So do I.  Maybe next year!