A ‘Prescription’ for Burning


Burning is a cost-effective method of controlling invasions of Eastern Red Cedar, but there’s more to burning than simply touching torch to ground. Prescribed burns follow a precise, multi-page “prescription” to ensure efficacy and safety.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

We’ve witnessed in recent times tremendous renewed interest among ranchers and land managers in using fire as a rangeland management tool. Eva Yearout’s husband manages the Z Bar Ranch near Medicine Lodge in southwest Kansas. She can tell you what that renewed interest is all about.

“I think if you look at the size and number of cedars and how much they have taken over the pastures, so there is actually nothing but cedars and very little grass in some of the pastures. I think people are realizing it has to be dealt with. That’s why some of the first burns we do in this area are so challenging.”

Wonder what makes those cedar-infested pasture burns so challenging?

“It doesn’t behave the same as grass.”

Those Eastern Red Cedars burn hotter, she says, and put off pops and embers.

“You have to be on your game plan; you have to pay attention; and you have to look for a lot of different things — if you’re just burning CRP ground, it’s not going to burn the same as something that may have a high grass load and cedar trees galore. I think people are starting to do it more because nobody has burned these trees in 20 years and they’ve taken over.”

So the point of that is there is important experience one gains from burning. Training is important.

If you take the River Road in Barber County, it’s only a 20-mile drive from the Z Bar up to Ted Alexander’s ranch near Sun City, Kansas. Alexander is another one who’s big on prescribed burning. The Alexander Ranch for nearly 30 years has flourished as a 7,000 acre custom grazing operation, and Alexander has been showered with accolades for his progressive conservation practices. He’s burned pasture land since the 1980s, and in 2008 he helped form the region’s burn association.

“We formed the Red Hills Prescribed Burn Association. We have a website up and going. We have about 15 members now. Somebody in that membership burns almost every year.”

Ted Alexander calls conducting an effective burn simple due diligence.

“It’s writing down what you’re going to do, have a prescription, make sure that the prescription is given to the county so that the sheriff and the dispatcher knows what you’re doing. I’ve burned over 200,000 acres since 1984 and have never had to call for assistance from a rural fire department. Out of the group of us, we’ve probably burned close to a million acres, and maybe had four calls for assistance.”

But here’s a major fear land managers have that causes an impediment to burning: the picture of an out-of-control fire. So these regional burn groups are organizing with others. They’re working with officials and legislators to grease the gears toward enabling affordable insurance. The Kansas Prescribed Fire Council was created in 2008 to protect landowner rights, and public land manager options, while using prescribed fire as a tool for managing grasslands. Tim Christian is on the steering committee. He’s also coordinator of the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition. He says this spring the council hired a state fire coordinator.

“One of the elements of that is obviously providing training. If there is equipment needs, we’ll be looking to help them find that equipment. A key component of that also is being able to find some liability insurance that is reasonably priced. So our coordinator will be working with these local prescribed burning associations to achieve all those things…” but ultimately to build a pool of ranchers and land managers who can be insured for liability.

You’ve been listening to Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. This program is made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.

Original broadcast: August 2012

Posted: August 14, 2015
Topics: Prescribed Fire