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For Missouri Conservation, Carefully-Used Fire Plays Critical Role

Sebastian Martinez

Fire plays an important role in many Midwestern ecosystems, but when it burns out of control it can also be devastating, as the wildfires in Oklahoma and Kansas have demonstrated. This time of year, when a lot of summer grasses and brush are still dead but the weather is warming up, the land is particularly flammable. That’s why agencies like the Missouri Department of Conservation take meticulous care in planning prescribed fire.

A group of about 15 Department of Conservation employees have spread out across the Whetstone Creek Conservation Area near Williamsburg, Missouri for a major prescribed burn on a recent afternoon.

Wildlife Management Biologist Jeff Demand explained, "This is a pretty big one, this is 1,166 acres. We normally do ‘em 100-300 acres in size is the average." Demand is the burn boss, meaning he’s ultimately in charge of this burn. It’s the   culmination of a lot of planning.

"We have a burn plan that’s about 35-40 pages and then the other planning is the weather conditions. You have to have the right wind direction, the right humidity," Demand said.

On top of that, Demand has to coordinate with all the members of the team, which includes water-carriers, ATVs with mounted flamethrowers, and billy goats: conservationists armed with drip torches, which drip flaming fuel onto the undergrowth.

Drip torches are one of the basic tools of the conservationists. They're extremely portable, and drip flaming fuel to start fires.

The billygoats set off into the woods, using their driptorches, which drip flaming fuel onto the undergrowth. The leaves burn, but at a low heat, and they give off a lot of smoke. Burning serves different ecological purposes in the wooded areas and in the grasslands which make up the conservation area.

"This time of year, it gets rid of the dead down, the duff layers, gets rid of the woody debris. It does a lot of promotion for new forbes and new grasses to come in," Demand said.

Those grasses burn a lot hotter and faster than the wooded areas along the creek, and the flames spring up to several feet in height. Smoke gradually filters into the trees, punctured by the setting sun, and the rising moon. Fire has been a part of the prairies and savannahs that covered central Missouri since the glaciers receded and created them, and the wildlife that inhabit these areas have long since adapted to the flames.

Demand explains that without fire, "Woody succession takes over and your prairies get encroached by woody and eventually and then eventually it loses a lot of the characteristics, a lot of the plants go out, a lot of the animals, a lot of the birds, insects, they can’t use that prairie."

That’s why, for centuries Native Americans started fires, which could last for weeks, to maintain the plants and animals that fed them, and even to herd bison for hunting.

Credit Sebastian Martinez / KBIA
Demand walks opposite burning summer grasses, which make up a central part of the conservation area.

Things look different these days. An ATV with a mounted flamethrower takes off down a gravel road, along an area of grassland. Because the flames can move so quickly, the conservationists make sure the wind is blowing in the face of the fire whenever possible, and that it’s contained by fire lines – like the creek or the gravel road – which the blaze can’t easily cross.

The wet winter this year means Demand and his crew had to wait longer than usual for today’s burn. The spring burning season has been pushed back into mid-April, which means more plants are sprouting up, and it’s more difficult to burn. But with the Whetstone Creek burn over with, Demand can move onto smaller burns, and the plant life can start to grow again.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.