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Ask A Scientist: Why Do We Burn the Prairie?

Conservation specialist Paula Matile discusses the benefits of prescribed burns on the prairie.

Paula Matile is a conservation specialist with The Nature Conservancy who works with the Kansas Chapter. One of her many responsibilities includes leading the prescribed burning program in Kansas, especially how it affects the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills region. In the interview, Paula discusses why it’s important to burn prairie, how the Conservancy’s methods are different from traditional patterns, and the training it takes to be part of a burn crew.

Q: Why do we do prairie burns every spring? What is the benefit of burning?
A: There are several reasons why the prairie is burned and those reasons are the benefits. The prairie needs fire to exist. Along with grazing, fire has always been an essential ecological process for the preservation and sustainability of the prairie ecosystem. Burning removes old growth, controls the establishment and spread of invasive and woody plant species, puts nutrients back into the soil, and promotes the growth and abundance of native prairie grasses and forbs. In turn, wildlife habitat is improved, native prairie plant communities are enhanced, and forage productivity is increased.

Q: When is the best time to burn?
A: Prescribed burning can take place any time of the year if conditions are favorable to your objectives. However, it has been a common practice in the Flint Hills to burn in the spring to speed the green-up process and improve forage quality and palatability for livestock. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve has been burning in early March for several years now if weather and fuel conditions are favorable.

Q: How is the Conservancy’s method different?
The Conservancy’s burning objective is to promote diversity and enhance wildlife habitat; therefore, we are trying to create a shifting mosaic of burn patches across the prairie to mimic a more historic natural grazing and fire interaction. 

Q: What is this “shifting mosaic” method called?
A: It’s called patch-burn grazing (PBG) it’s a fire-induced grazing system where, typically, 1/3 of a pasture is burned every year on a three-year rotational basis moving the grazing pressure from patch to patch.

Q: How do our results differ with patch-burn grazing?
A: Compared to traditional burning, patch-burn grazing has an edge in effectiveness for controlling invasive woody plants due to heavier fuel loads and in creating a heterogeneous landscape increasing diversity of plant communities and wildlife species.

Q: What is the plant response after a prairie is burned?
A: Plant response and how fast the grass greens-up after a fire depends upon a number of factors, the primary factor being the plants’ biological make-up. Grass, in particular the warm season grasses that dominate the Flint Hills, will begin growing in the spring when the soil warms. For the soil to warm, the air temperature needs to consistently stay above freezing. By burning the prairie, we remove the old growth leaving the ground bare and black, which in turn allows increased light penetration from the sun warming the soil near and below the surface faster than unburned areas.

Q: How many people do you need to conduct a burn?
A: The number of people to conduct a burn varies according to the size and complexity of the burn, the strategy or approach on how the burn will be conducted, and whether you are burning on private or public land.

Q: The Conservancy owns over 46,000 acres in Kansas. How many acres are burned on Conservancy property?
A: The number of acres burned on TNC property in Kansas averages around 15,000 acres. Also, a number of partners are involved in the prescribed burns on our property.

Q: Have they all received training?
A: All prescribed burns on federal and TNC lands, or conducted using federal dollars, require that all fire personnel be qualified under the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) training requirements.

Q: What is the training?
A: Every fire position has different training requirements. To be a non-supervisory basic firefighter you must complete four courses, which are usually combined as a one 30-40 hour training. Once you complete the classroom training, you are required to meet a physical fitness level, which is renewed each year.

Q: How is your training as burn boss different?
A: There is a lot more classroom trainings and you must complete a task book where you get on-the-job training by experience.

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