Konza burnings help researchers test effects of fire on land


Flames carry across an open piece of land, burning everything in sight.

It is a fire common to a group of workers and volunteers who spend their spring burning sections of the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area.

Eva Horne, interim director of the Konza Prairie, said controlled burns have happened on the Konza Prairie since the late 1970s to study the long-term effects the process has on the prairie.

When the prairie gets too green, Horne said burning stops because the fire does not carry well.

The various sections are burned in different intervals, including some annually, every four years and every 10 years.

The increase in the frequency of burns decreases woody vegetation, and Horne said research has shown this increases native grass species, and bison and cattle tend to prefer the land which has been burned.

On the day of a burn, the fire chief makes a decision whether or not it will occur.

If the chief decides to schedule a burn, a group of about 12 to 15 trained and experienced volunteers meet to start working.

At the site, Horne said four vehicles with water go in two different directions to start the backfire, a fire around the perimeter of the area. The fire is started with a drip torch containing a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel.

While the burning might seem simple, Horne said a procedure goes into making a successful and safe burn.

“This is not a manual for people to burn their own property,” she said. “There’s a lot more training involved.”

A backfire establishes a border of black around the circumference of the area, and then the show begins.

A fast-moving headfire is then lit, quickly eating up the vegetation in its path. Horne said the sight is something to behold.

“It’s awe-inspiring, especially when you light a headfire,” she said. “It’s a great, huge, roaring flame. It’s just very impressive.”

This is where the time spent making the border around the area becomes important. Horne said the backfire’s perimeter has to be burned thoroughly and wide enough to ensure the headfire does not jump into another area.

Horne said burn volunteers might spend about 10 to 12 days burning during the season, but the time varies from a few hours to a full day of burning.

“It depends on weather and what we’re doing,” she said.

Gene Towne, Konza Prairie fire chief, said the burnings usually start in March and end during the first week of May.

“Everything is dependent on wind speed and wind direction,” said Towne, who also is a K-State research associate in biology. “Everything we do is weather dependent. It’s a day to day situation.”

This season has been slow, Towne said, with only a few burns.

“This has not been a good spring,” he said. “We have only gotten about one to two burns in a week.”

The Konza Prairie is divided into about 50 units. Towne said burns occur annually during the fall and in February, but most of the burns are in the spring.

Towne said the Konza Prairie would turn into a forest if it was not burned.

The controlled burns increase the growth of native tall grasses instead of plants and trees foreign to the prairie.

Valerie Wright, environmental educator and naturalist at the Konza Prairie, has been on burns for several years and said the crew takes their work seriously.

“The burn crews are very professional,” she said. “Everybody has a very specific role to play.”

Wright said she takes her camera to the burns and spends her time looking at what to capture on film, while enjoying nature in the process.

Burns can be calm for awhile, Wright said, but things can become fast-paced quickly.

“It’s very interesting, and it’s very quiet until there’s a breakup or wind comes up,” she said, “and then there’s an adrenaline rush.”

Wright said watching the fire can be an exciting moment, and people often respond with a mixture of respect and awe.

“There is an absolute interest that humans have in flames,” she said. “That might come with siting around the campfire for eons. It’s so interesting how it works because it’s not how you expect.”