Friday, March 25, 2011

Prescribed Burns

As some of you may know, we have a 25 acre pasture that is just itchin to be burned. Has been since we bought the place but it’s a bit overwhelming so we kept putting it on the back burner…so to speak. The time has come to address it since the “seedlings” are no longer seedlings, they are on their way to becoming trees…some have already reached their goal. The native warm season grasses (and weeds) are getting so tall and thick, you can lose a horse back there, let alone sheep! So when I saw the posting about the prescribed burn workshop not far from us, I knew it was a sign.  Bridget and I signed up for the workshop put on by the Missouri Dept of Conservation at the Pony Express Lake near Maysville. Figured it was time to learn how its done.

Back 25 acre pasture, late summer 2010
We happily headed off early Saturday morning for a day of lecture and slideshows (me happily, Bridget in a sleep deprived fog-she is not a morning person). Bridget expected a demo but I thought that would be hard to plan for so I didn’t expect one.

We arrived, got our print outs, calendar, were offered refreshments and found a couple of chairs in the very tight little room that was pretty much full to capacity, maybe 10-12 people I think. It was geared towards people with land in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) but others, like us, were welcomed.

They announced that they would have a short video presentation and then we would proceed to an area near the lake and would have a quick prescribed burn demo. Well, Bridget was thrilled to pieces that she was right. She claims that it doesn’t happen that often so she likes to revel in it when it does.

So we sat thru the video and then they had a short question answer period and then we headed out to gear up for the demo. The conservation agents are gearing up in fire resistant clothing, helmets and gloves. I showed up in my handspun & knitted “Evie” sweater and blue jeans, Bridget in a probably completely nylon (and highly flammable) coat. They proceeded to tell us about a gentleman that showed up in a nylon dress shirt once and while participating in the demo, the shirt evaporated leaving him with cuffs and a collar. Oh jeez. I don’t think I was expecting to be so hands on here!

I did want to learn though so I followed the brave crowd thru the 5+’ high native grasses (gathering seeds in my sweater as we went) to the bottom of the hill where the grassy area met the lake. We were to be the ones that set the “back fire” or the fire line that burns back towards the head fire. We were going to burn the area in a ring fashion so that the back and head fires circles the area and eventually meets back up and burns out somewhere near the middle.

drawing courtesy of

I was with one conservation agent and a very brave woman that decided to work the drip torch that would light the back fire. I was handed a rake but wasn’t completely sure what the heck I was to do with. So the woman with the drip torch begins to light the grass on fire. Let me just interject here that I have a pretty healthy fear of fire. No major traumatic experiences, it just scares the crap out of me. I actually thought I was in a safe position though, pretty much away from the serious burning.

So, we start walking slowly around the parameter, lighting the grass as we go. The conservation agent (CA) we were with was telling us to turn our backs to the fire because the smoke might get a bit intense. Oh really? Interesting. Then he tells us to stop and wait a bit so the other fire starter people can make it around to the other corner to get the head fire started. So we stand there, calmly chatting…and coughing. I’m starting to get a little anxious because the smoke is getting thicker and thicker. At this point the wind had shifted from due east to a more SSE direction plus it was blowing a bit more than one would have liked for a prescribed burn (don’t I sound like an expert?? :). Bridget told me later that the CA she was with said he was nervous about this because of the high wind gusts. Greeeat.

Then the CA’s walkie talkie beeps and I hear “You guys better start moving to the corner. NOW!”. The CA immediately tells us to get moving to the corner. Don’t have to tell me twice, I was already turned and heading for the corner! Then I hear something that literally sounds like a tornado and I look up the hill and O.M.G.!!!! The flames are leaping like 20 feet into the air and approaching us at a high rate of speed. I’m speed walking/trotting at this point and decided I’d better look back to make sure that the CA and drip torch lady are following me. The poor woman is STILL lighting the back fire (bless her heart) and the CA is coming up quick on my heels. I let him pass me (he doesn’t hesitate to pass me btw) and ask the woman if she is OK? Yes she said but she looked a bit like a deer in headlights.

Thats me bravely protecting the others from the flames...
(just kidding, my beard isn't nearly that thick. :)
After what seemed like an hr (more like 10 minutes), we finally reached the corner, short mown grass and safety. I turned and looked back at the fire and I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. The sound was what most impressed me, you had to almost yell to be heard. I understand now what fire fighters must feel like, ok maybe not exactly but this fire made a huge impression on me.

I finally caught back up with Bridget who had decided to stay near the head fire. Smart move. She said she could see people near the lake (my group) that were calmly walking along and then all of a sudden started moving much faster (that would’ve been me). She said afterwards that it was obvious I had PTSD because I simply couldn’t stop saying "OMG that fire was big!!" Well, it was!!!

We both learned a lot from this workshop. We learned how to plan for a prescribed burn, the importance of checking the weather forecasts for wind velocity, direction, relative humidity, cloud cover, let the local fire dept know and alert your neighbors. Oh and did you know that smoke can conduct electricity?? So never burn near power lines or at least know what you’re doing if you are. Certain materials can create blacker smoke (like cedar trees) and the blacker the smoke, the more carbon material is in it which basically means its thicker and conducts electricity more readily. They told us that people have been electrocuted when standing in the smoke that has come in contact with power lines. Plus the treated wooden poles are highly flammable (like our fence posts) so you don’t want to have to deal with putting electric poles out for sure (and then paying to have them replaced). We all found that to be very helpful information, to say the least. However, I think the most important piece of information we got from this workshop was….hire a professional!!!!

For more information about planning your own prescribed burn, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation or your own states Department of Conservation website.  Most will offer a burn workshop in your area so check with them for dates and times.  It is totally worth the time to go to one if you are serious about prescribed burns for pasture and woodland management.


  1. Very informative and funny, and a professional would be worth anything to have it done. Good piece.CW

  2. Thanks CW! We did hire a pro and got it done a couple weekends ago. Now that lambing is over, I'll be posting a blog with lots of pics and even a short video of the burn. It went very well!