Wet-mesic Prairie Prescribed Burn

March 14, 2018 – St. Louis, MO

Not many people can boast that they got to set their work on fire before leaving it.

Headfire taking off in the prairie.

I was fortunate enough to have the weather conditions necessary to squeeze in our annual prescribed burn just 4 days before my last day at the ecology center.

We burned one prairie that was 4.5 acres and a second one that was 1.5 acres. The prairies at our site are wet-mesic, creating a diversity of wet prairie plants. However, the winter drought conditions created a stand of extremely dry fuel.

The pressure was on for me this year, as it was my first time in charge of organizing the burn. This meant that I had to oversee preparing the areas, contacting authorities, gathering equipment, and choosing a day within the fairly strict weather parameters.

My colleague was the burn boss during the burn, directing myself and the rest of the crews.

Lighting the backfire to create a black line. Photo credit: Bill Zeh

I was one of the people tasked with the coolest job (in my opinion) of running the drip torch. In other words, lighting the fire!

There were two ignition teams, which consisted of:

  • 1 drip torch
  • 3-4 metal rakes
  • 1-2 waterpack sprayers
  • 1 flapper

There were several extra hands with rakes too, stationed around the perimeter.

Headfire. Photo credit: Bill Zeh

They say that most prescribed fires are about 95% standing around bored and 5% heart attack. With the light variable winds altering the flame direction at a moment’s notice, I certainly had my share of heart attack in the first 5 minutes of igniting the first prairie.

The plan was to create a ring fire. This is done by burning a blackline around most of the perimeters and then starting a headfire on the last leg to close the circle. This will cause the fire to meet in the middle and burn itself out.

We were unable to carry out the ring fire technique because the winds changed direction and the backing fire quickly became a head fire.

We started another head fire on the opposite end of the prairie and ended up with a sort of U-shaped fire for a while. We were still able to achieve a complete burn, as the fire consumed all of the fuel in the prairie and no stands of dead plants were left.

My takeaway lessons from yesterday’s burn:

  • Burn plans change as fast as the fire does
  • Always remember to discuss escape routes with the crews
  • It takes time and experience on the fire-line
  • Drought conditions create the need for better site preparation and watching for slopovers


Thanks to our wonderful, enthusiastic volunteers for making this possible!

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