Field fire in southwest Missouri keeps prairie healthy

Friday, January 20, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — In less than two hours, fire reduced the native grasses and plants on Woods Prairie to a blanket of ashes.

People unfamiliar with the needs of prairies might consider that a disaster.


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In fact, a fire is just what the prairie, near Chesapeake in Lawrence County, needed, Andy Thomas said.

The tiny remnant of one of the prairies that once bordered Ozarks' forests would disappear without fire, said Thomas, president of the Ozarks Regional Land Trust and a researcher at the University of Missouri Southwest Center.

"They require fire," Thomas said of prairies. "In nature, they are burned. Otherwise, they grow into brush. If we didn't burn this, it would grow into brush and trees."

Burning isn't the only tool used to keep the prairie healthy, Thomas said.

Some years, the prairie, which has never been plowed, is hayed or brush hogged.

This year, though, fire was used to prepare the prairie for a spring and summer crop of native grasses and flowering plants.

Missouri Prairie Foundation operations manager Richard Datema supervised the burn.

One of Datema's jobs is to care for foundation areas around the state and to help other groups like the land trust, Datema said.

As he spoke, workers wielding drip torches put burning kerosene on the ground to start firelines. The burn was taking place at the upper edge of allowable wind conditions, Datema said, as flames rose and white smoke billowed from burning vegetation.

Preparations taken before the burn, such as cutting vegetation around the prairie's borders, worked to limit the fire's spread.

"The key is to secure your downwind line, and once it's done, it's not too hard," he said.

Datema used fire against itself.

One fire set on the prairie's downwind side burned into another fire set on the upwind side. When the fires met, they didn't have fuel to move farther and extinguished each other.

Watching a prairie being burned off always is exciting, said Linda Ellis, a master naturalist from Galena who volunteered.

"I've been volunteering here 15 years during burns and seed collection and plant identification," Ellis said. "I'm a plant junkie. I also love tall grass prairies and the diversity of plant and animal life on them."

Ellis ventured into an unburned section to check out dried seed pods. Even in midwinter, Ellis found rattlesnake master, black-eyed Susan, spurge and other plants. The prairie is home to more than 250 plant species.

Mount Vernon resident John Typaldos volunteered for his first controlled burn.

Typaldos said he'd been on seed-collecting missions but wanted to see what a burn involved.

Typaldos' job involved using a backpack sprayer to put water on the edges of the fire to keep it from spreading.

"The longer you wear it, the lighter it gets," Typaldos said jokingly.

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