The blaze edged closer and closer. The coming fury, pushed along by the light southerly breeze, roared as the dry prairie grass ignited. A warmth rose on my cheeks as the fire approached, a flutter of concern bubbled in my stomach.
No need to call 911, though. A carefully planned burn unfolded before me. Prescribed fires occur all over the Midwestern prairie states in the spring. Unlike a cheery Currier-and-Ives winter hearth fire, this one, in southern Wisconsin, moved with wild intensity and power.
As a kid, fires brought the best kind of comfort – warmth on a cold evening, the embers' murmuring tones echoing in the brick hearth. The flames always mesmerized me. I threw in twigs and stirred the coals with the poker, endlessly entertained by the erupting flares of light. I wadded up bits of newspapers and watched as the red-hot coals ignited the fuel into a dozen hues – yellows, blues, and greens – as the inks combusted. The glossy advertising pages produced an especially colorful display.
Seated atop the brick hearth extension, the fire’s heat flushed my cheeks with pink warmth. Turning around, my back got the same treatment. Drying my hair after a winter’s bath was far more pleasant at the fireplace than with my mother’s noisy 60’s-era portable salon dryer. In the morning, the cold gray remains lay in the firebox, ready to sweep down the ash chute.
I found comfort in the fire. I never thought much about the power of the flames caged within our fireplace. That is, not until I found myself helping with a prescribed burn.
I found the display just as mesmerizing as the fires of my childhood. But the heat in my cheeks broke my reverie. I backed off to the safety of a previously prepared firebreak.
Backfires set earlier in the day created protective strips to help corral the flames where needed. Done right, a nicely executed prairie burn rivals a military maneuver – meticulous planning, good communication, and battle-ready crew movements. The day’s preparations ended with the fire scorching the four-acre field within a half hour.
The fire’s aftermath leaves a blackened patch of earth. Drooping nubbins of heartier fire-adapted plants remain to break up the topography. Regular burning keeps invasive plants at bay and paves the way for new growth. The earth, now perfectly prepared for new shoots to rise, Phoenix-like, can renew the splendor of the prairie for another year.