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Burning the Prairie

November 22, 2013

With a name like Prairie Ridge, it should come as no surprise that you’ll see prairie grasses when you visit.  Constructed prairies cover about 12 of our 45 acres and demonstrate what large swaths of North Carolina Piedmont likely used to look like.  But building and maintaining a prairie isn’t as simple as planting seed and then sitting back to watch it grow.  Natural prairies are periodically exposed to grazing, fires, and other natural processes that are essential for maintaining the grasses and preventing woody plant growth.  In a managed prairie such as the one at Prairie Ridge, it is important to duplicate these processes so that the grasses have the greatest chance at survival.

As part of our management plan, we burn one of three sections of the prairie every year.  Our natural resources manager, Brian Hahn, is a certified burn boss and leads our controlled burn with the help of the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources and the Western Wake Fire Department.  Brian and his team monitor the weather closely and when the conditions are just right (not too windy, not too wet), they work together to set the prairie ablaze in a controlled burn.

This year’s burn took place on November 19th, and it is a fascinating process to watch!  The prairie is burned in small sections and the team moves from one end of the prairie to the other so that they can keep the fire under very tight control.  The team splits up the necessary work.  A few team members operate the drip torches, starting the fires and determining how quickly the prairie burns:

drip torching

Other team members monitor the progress of the fire, manning small water hoses as necessary and stomping out small lingering fires along the edge.  These team members ensure that the fire doesn’t jump from one section to another:

Monitoring the fire

Yet another team is ready to jump in and help in the event that the fire gets out of control.  We never need their services, but it’s good to know they’re there just in case.

The fire burns fast and hot…

Big fire

… and leaves a wake of grasses and wildflowers reduced to ash:

After the fire

Though it might look like the burn destroys the prairie, fire is an important management tool.  Prairie grasses are generally well adapted to withstanding periodic fires.  Even though the above ground grasses are decimated, there are still roots and seeds underground that are well protected from the blaze.  With the fertilization the ashes provide, the grasses and native wildflowers will quickly regrow.  The fire also burns a lot of the woody plants that encroach on the prairie, eliminating much of the competition the grasses and wildflowers have for space and resources.  All in all, fires provide a very important service to the plants, and are very valuable tool we can use to grow a healthier, happier prairie.

You might see blackened areas and ash in the lower prairie area over the next few weeks.  However, now is a great time to visit Prairie Ridge!  We’ll likely see an increase in the number of birds of prey and vultures as the fire has opened up the land and the newly burn areas are excellent hunting grounds.  You might also catch a rare glimpse of some of our small mammals as they move about and relocate after the fire.  The black areas might not look like much, but they can hold some fascinating surprises!

Photos by Chris Goforth

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