Freshly turned earth created a perimeter to a field of dead grasses and forbs, dried from months of winter without growth. Special yellow shirts and green pants served as uniforms for the men carrying drip torches; simple and effective combinations of fuel canister and wick, unchanged in the decades since their invention. With a simple swipe of this elegant tool, the fire began. Crackling flames were multiplied by the slightest breeze, engulfing the field in thick smoke. The temperature was right, the wind worked with us, and the precautions put in place served their purpose. We stood and watched it burn. The atmosphere was one of alertness and confidence. There was no need for worry or rushing around; everything went according to plan. Only a few minutes later, we were left standing on a black plot of land where only wisps of smoke continued to rise from the last burning clumps of Johnson grass.

What relation has fire to water? While only the spring growth will show us the fruits of our labor, we can be assured of one thing; fire encourages native plant growth. Whether the fire is meant to reduce thistle, Johnson grass, and parsnip, as it was in our case, or to cut down cedar trees and understory growth in forests across the state, prescribed and well-managed fires can give a habitat a fresh start, free of the choking encroachment of non-native or invasive species.

These native species are well adapted to the Ozarks. Prairie plants have roots that run deep, reaching for water in dry climates. When it rains, these roots encourage water to move down into the soil. Rather than running off, rainwater is pulled into the ground and the plants themselves. This infiltration prevents erosion of soils and sediment into nearby waterways. Native prairie grasses do not rely on irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizer like so many of our introduced species. They can survive with only water from the rain, good soil, and space. Not only does the occasional prescribed burn cut down on the invasive species population, in some instances it causes native seed to germinate, sprouting wonderful grasses and flowers that are beautiful to the eye and beneficial to the ecosystem.

Fire is a wonderful tool for maintaining and managing healthy Ozark habitats, but don’t take it lightly. Many things can go wrong as fire is a powerful and sometimes unpredictable force. The Missouri Department of Conservation can write burn prescriptions for private land if you are willing to work with them. Today, we worked with our friends from Ozark Greenways. They had the background knowledge, experience, burn plan, and equipment. We were simply along for the ride, and we could not be happier with the experience we had today. This video shows our burn.

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