Recently we burned our CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land and an adjoining parcel of CRP ground owned by another person who had the good judgment to go to church instead. We had tried twice previously this spring to burn the combined 55 acres of CRP land but had to cancel each attempt when light rain set in just as the fire containment crew arrived.
The last Sunday of April was a top-10 day: Little wind, bright sunshine but not too hot, and dry conditions. It was a perfect day to burn last year’s prairie forbs (e.g., milkweeds, coneflowers and asters) and tall grasses (e.g., Big Blue Stem, Indian Grass, Switchgrass, and Canadian Wild Rye). Even though we usually don’t work on Sundays, we decided to go ahead with the burn because suitable weather conditions were hard to come by.
A crew of four people (our son and son-in-law, a fellow from Pheasants Forever, and the lady who mows our lawn and has an ATV equipped with a 50 gal. tank) arrived mid-morning after the dew had evaporated. Because I had done prairie burns before, Marilyn and I were the communications coordinators and lunch providers.
Our cropland renter had disked a 60 ft. wide perimeter around the prairie as a fire-break; I had obtained the necessary permissions from the USDA Farm Service Agency and the local Fire Department Chief. I notified the County Emergency Communication Agency that morning so any 911 callers reporting a fire could be assured this was a planned event.
Two crew members used torches to start backfires. The dead plants crackled loudly as the fire quickly spread through the dry tinder. Pheasants glided out of harm’s way as the flames leapt 20 ft. high and the conflagration rapidly gained ground against the light prevailing wind.
The crew raced twice to extinguish flames that escaped beyond the intended boundaries using rakes and hand-held water sprayers, but our lawn-mowing lady saved the day when she arrived on each scene with her ATV and water tank. She had to refill the tank twice.
The prairie fires on the Great Plains were surely more terrifying when Native People and the first settlers of European origin into these areas were the only human residents as high winds pushed surging flames toward them. Accounts I have read said wildfires spread as fast as 50 mph or more. Flames burst upward as much as 100 feet. Smoke darkened the sunlight so it seemed like dusk.
This and other controlled prairie burns in which I have participated roared loudly. The flames of uncontrolled wildfires must have sounded like thunder, and were even scarier in the danger they posed to humans and animals that couldn’t hide underground, or in creeks and lakes, or outrun the searing blaze.
Our prairie burn was under control when Marilyn and I returned around noon in my 2004 Grand Cherokee Jeep with sandwiches, fries, and bottled water. I drove around the perimeter next to the creek running through the tract.
If you sense that something unforeseen was about to happen, you’re right. I couldn’t detect that bent-over dead grass covered a watery slough.
I buried my 2004 Grand Cherokee in mud above its axles until it was high-centered. My son-in-law, who came to rescue Marilyn and me with his Wrangler, also sunk helplessly into the muck.
Our son Jon extricated both jeeps with his mighty diesel Ram truck with elevated shocks and oversized tires, using a 100 ft. tow rope. It’s the same magnificent man-truck that caused the hair on my chest to turn black overnight and my voice to become an octave lower after riding in it the first time.
Jon dragged us out of the suctioning mud laughing as he proclaimed, “What are you, amateurs?”
Toward the end of the afternoon and after half the crew left, Jon and his buddy drove around the perimeter of the field to extinguish any remaining hotspots. Jon got stuck in the same mud hole he had extricated us from earlier; he called me for assistance.
After pulling him out of the muck with my humble 16-year-old Jeep, I commented, “You must be a rookie driver!” It took me a half hour to scrub most of the mud off my still sturdy vehicle.
That evening Marilyn and I took one last tour around the field. We spotted three simmering hot-spots and watered them down. I didn’t sleep well that night until 3 a.m. when a brief shower of rain wetted down our region.
The prairie burn was exciting, fun, and enabled us to accomplish a necessary task while social distancing. I wish other “burning” issues were as enjoyably resolved, like: When will medium and small farm operations receive supplemental payments for their agricultural products? When will we receive our promised stimulus payments of $2,400 per couple? And when will it be safe to socialize face-to-face again?
Dr. Mike and Marilyn reside on their farm in western Iowa. Contact the author at email@example.com.