Small flames of fire crawled up the hill Saturday, forming a blackened ring around the two-acre field at Mineral Area College (MAC).
It took about a half hour for the fire to create a wide path around the acreage. But when men poured a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel along the top of the hill, it took only minutes for the fire to race back down the hill, burning the rest of the field.
Saturday’s controlled burn was part of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s fourth Wildlife, Forest and Fisheries Workshops event. This was the second time the seminar has been held at MAC, which served as the pilot site for the program.
Saturday’s program drew at least 140 people from several counties, including Reynolds, Madison, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Franklin counties, said A.J. Hendershott, outreach and educational regional supervisor for the Conservation Department.
“These guys and gals could have done a lot of other things on a Saturday, but they decided to come here for conservation efforts,” Hendershott said. “We’ve very pleased with the turnout.”
The day-long seminar included workshops on managing property to attract deer, wild turkeys, quail and rabbits; how to manage, harvest and sell timber on your land; growing plants and creating wildlife habitat in glades and woodlands; improving fish habitat and managing aquatic vegetation in ponds; alleviating bank erosion on waterways; protecting your property from trespass, illegal hunting and other encroachment issues; feral hogs and nuisance wildlife; financial assistance/incentives; warm season grasses; food plots; invasive and native plants in home landscaping.
“We have some of our best minds teaching here today,” Hendershott said. “Some of the classes – deer management, cost shares, establishing warm season grass and food plots – are so popular, we offer more than one class.”
“I learned a lot about timberland, natural landscaping and burning,” said Janet Hood of the St. Louis area. “I have a little bit of property and I was interested in learning how to manage it. I think it is important to manage things well.”
Her friend Steve Bezayiff came with her.
“I learned a lot about different types of terrain in Missouri – glades, rock outcroppings, native grasses and flowers,” he said. “It was very interesting.”
For some, the highlight was the controlled burn scheduled at 3 p.m. on two acres of campus land.
“I wish they’d had this a few years ago,” said Jason Hawkins. “We tried to burn and I burned an extra acre of land that I didn’t want to.”
Hawkins brought his dad along so they could split the classes and share the information with each other afterward.
Hendershott said there are many steps involved in planning a prescribed, or controlled, burn. Studies of tree rings and Native American practices show that natural or manmade burns took place about every three years over the past several centuries. Setting fires periodically clears brush, adds nutrients to the soil, speeds up new growth, and helps many plant species to thrive. In the past two hundred years, when man began to reduce fires, scientists noted a change in plant growth.
“Some plants and animals are dependent on a landscape that has been kissed by fire,” Hendershott explained. A field that has burned has more blooms, better seed production and more nutritious plants. A lot of plants in Missouri, including the short leaf pine, depend on fire for their growth process. Without it, some plants die off.”
Saturday’s burn took place in a field behind the ball fields on the MAC campus. The dead grasses, called duff, where short and flattened. The fire would eliminate most of the duff, allowing sun and air to reach the new growth. Because the dead material was short, the burn would be low and slow, Hendershott explained.
The burn crew gathered to go over their burn plan. Much earlier, they had studied the land, its topography, the expected wind direction, the plant growth and type and the proximity to trees. Crews had cleared a six-foot wide path of all fuel for the fire, including grasses, sticks and other flammable materials.
Because there was a slight shift in wind direction, the burn crew had to modify the burn plan a bit. Burn Boss Jan Delamano explained the process to workshop participants while the crew checked their equipment.
The experienced fire crew split into two groups and they checked radio communication with Delamano. When he gave the word, two men sprayed a gasoline/diesel fuel combination on dried grass at the bottom of the hill.
The wind was pushing down the hill, slowing the fire as it tried to move forward. Behind the fire, brown duff changed into brittle black plant remains. The plan was to start a ring of fire around the bottom and sides of the hillside acreage, creating a wide swatch of burned area that would prevent the headfire from setting other plants on fire.
It took more than a half hour for the horseshoe of fire to burn a barrier along the bottom of the hill and the two sides.
“This is a very slow fire,” Hendershott said. “When they start the headfire, you will see it race down the hill, pushed by wind.”
Sure enough, as the fire starters began a line of fire at the top of the hill, the flames leapt ahead and burned the remaining field in just minutes. Behind them was a smoldering blackened field. The black grasses lay on top of the ground, burned so quickly that the soil under them appeared untouched by the flames.
“That black will absorb the warmth of the sun and in a few days, this field will be covered with green,” Hendershott explained.
Controlled burns require a lot of planning so they don’t get out of hand. They are not like the hot, unchecked wildfires in the west that can spread for days and weeks, or the prairie fires during the western expansion period, he added.
“The prairie fires mentioned in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and other books were terrifying,” he said. “They would burn very hot, and would destroy the fuel in a couple of minutes, so it moved very quickly. You couldn’t outrun that.
“The flames often reached 40 feet high.”
The Conservation Department offers classes to teach landowners how to properly burn. Class participants may receive help designing their burn plan and can borrow Department equipment to conduct the burn, Hendershott said.
For more information about wildlife, forest and fisheries classes, call 573-290-5730.
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at email@example.com.