“You won’t get a permit if we don’t get some moisture,” the Clearwater Volunteer Fire Chief flatly informed me. It was the week before the seed conference, two weeks before we wanted to burn the pasture.
“I understand.” Heck, I agreed with him. The drought of 2012 hit our area very hard. The early 2013 spring rain and snow pelting Lincoln missed the farm – repeatedly. I prepared a prescribed burn plan and mailed it to him just before we left for the 2013 Native Seed conference. I guilted my sister into agreeing to help. I solicited no one else because I didn’t really believe it would rain or snow in our absence and that I was merely relieving my inner nag by “at least trying” to get a permit.
It rained while we were out of town. It rained enough that he asked how many ATV’s we would have onsite when we burned. How much water would we have available should something go wrong. Tentatively he gave his approval, but we would need the final say Friday from the assistant chief who also worked at the coop where we would get the water tanker we needed.
Condition of the pasture the evening before we started controlled burning
Carey and I stopped by the farm Thursday night and I took a picture of the SNOW on the ground. Based on the weather forecast Friday and Saturday I revised the plan to take advantage of the weather: Friday winds 12-18 mph out of the NW meant we should back burn along east and south disked breaks, Saturday 13-20 mph out of the SE meant we should back burn north and west and set a head fire up the north slopes. The assistant chief wasn’t too concerned about our plan. He did want to make sure we had enough water and filled the 200 gallon tank we borrowed from Pheasants Forever. We headed back to the farm loaded with tools and water.
I should probably mention that I have never conducted a prescribed burn before, though I have participated in a few. Carey has burned more brush piles than he can count but that isn’t quite the same thing. We mixed fuel for the drip torch, filled the backpack water sprayer, positioned the tractor and truck in strategic locations and headed to the south side to start igniting dry grass. The drip torch was new and took a little while to light. We lit a dry cedar branch with needles to provide the constant flame a match could not sustain. Off I went about 10′ off the disked fire break. The fire crept west along the furrow and also north into the wind.
Creeping back fire along east side
All day the fire edged slowly north and west (Carey dragged it with a rake) until we had to put it out around 7:30 pm. I had hoped it would make it all the way across the south side but we put it out in the last draw below the western-most slope.
Meanwhile I was setting black line on the east side but as I moved closer to the north windbreak simultaneously falling further below the hill to the west, the air started to swirl. I was almost at the end when I realized the creeping fire had jumped the draw and was headed up the slope. I called Carey. “I need help.” He stammered and mumbled. “Move the tractor!” I said into the phone and ran over to the truck and drove it into position to hose down the escaping fire. Trouble was I didn’t know how to start the pump so Carey had to come over and start it for me. Then I couldn’t get enough hose off the reel to reach the ascending flames moving away from me. Carey started disking the slope above the advancing flames (his way of moving the tractor) and I managed to smother the flames with the flapper as they hit the disked furrows. The fire also spread north and nearly ignited a pine stump but I hosed that out. We had it back under control in about 45 minutes and Carey returned to his fire on the south side. I put out some stray flames that crossed the disked break into the plots. It was a hectic hour. I don’t know that it would have done any harm had we let it run, but it was no longer under our control nor moving according to plan.
Carey’s creeping fire along the south side
I joined Carey on his side of the pasture making sure no flames crossed the large draw that feeds our dry pond. We agreed that we would put it out when the sun was just above the horizon. Around 7:30 pm we decided to put it out and finish Saturday. Around the same time a coyote howled nearby obviously displeased with the state of the pasture, almost a third of it black and smoking.
Saturday did not start well. My sister Kristin and her husband joined us and we replenished fuel for the drip torch (spilling some and sending my sister outside for fear we would blow up the building). We headed to the NW corner. Snow began to fall. I tried to set the back fire in the NW corner (wind out the SE). The brome did not want to burn. I kept going across the corner and then set off down the hill along the west side. Finally it started burning. No coincidence the wind picked up and the relative humidity dropped. Carey again dragged flames along the north side but couldn’t keep it going. Kristin and I headed south along the west side to the bottom of the draw and had a pretty good fire going. Finally the snow stopped and I headed east along the north break. Carey and Rob monitored the west side. The fire always smouldered out in the plum thickets: too damp, too little fuel.
Kristin monitoring the south side fire break
By 1 pm we had burned the backfires but the wind had increased to around 20 mph. We communicated by radio and decided to set a head fire halfway down the north side and let it run up the slope.
Head fire moving up north slope
About an hour later Mom and the grandkids arrived. I was a little nervous because I was going to light the last headfire to run up the north slope and made sure they stood “in the black” (an area already burned). Away it went and we were left with mop up detail and photographing the kids.
Esme and Guy, future fire crew members?
During mopup we discovered a smoldering cedar that had died in the 2005 fire but was still standing during this 2013 burn. It had been burning for a couple of hours I would guess when we took this picture:
Smoldering, dead cedar standing
The next day Carey and I burned a brush pile of thorny locust limbs and scraps from cutting trees down. It took a while but we finally got it going and ignited a honey locust stump that burned through the night.
Carey managing the brush pile
and one last shot of glowing embers.
We let the honey locust stump glow through the night because there was so little fuel left in the pasture.
I cannot express how happy and relieved I was after the burn was complete. And the pasture has exploded with new growth. Unfortunately much of it has been smooth brome. I think we burned a little too early to damage it. The Kentucky bluegrass has not rebounded as well. We need to burn our seed plots and see if that will suppress the resurgent brome.
Here’s a little clip of video Rob took: firemovie