A few minutes after we dropped a match into our front yard’s dry prairie grass, the wind unexpectedly puffed up. Almost as fast as an explosion, eight-foot flames roared up from the burning grass. Our yard was on fire. The heat was intense as the fire zoomed toward our house.
The grasses catch quickly and subside as quickly.
Were we worried? Nope. Between the fire and the house was a three-foot mowed lawn, then our ten-foot-wide driveway and finally another 30 feet of mowed green lawn. Asphalt and green lawn don’t burn. When the raging blaze met the first strip of lawn it almost immediately calmed. Soon all the dry prairie was consumed, and with a final weak smoke puff, the fire was out.
From many years of experience with fire and its impact on the land, we know that our annual burn will stimulate a rush of colorful wildflowers next year while toasting any unwanted brush that tries to establish itself in our grassland.
MEDIA PROMOTE FIRE FEAR
It seems like almost every evening newscast shows photos of burned-out homes, usually in California, and reports of wildfires rampaging across the landscape. It’s easy to become fire scared without understanding how, where and why fires burn, their benefits, and how to protect a home from a wildfire. News reports and photographers frequently show the worst appearing spot and never return months later to show the profusion of wildflowers and tree seedlings the burn created.
As a former Forest Service Hot Shot, and with nearly 40 years of prescribed burning in prairies and oak savannas, Rich has much fire experience. Marion has been tending prescribed burns for years. They annually burn the prairie and savanna surrounding their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Here’s their perspective.
FIRE IN NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY
Many of us remember grade school history lessons telling of Europeans discovering a forest primeval when their sailing ship landed along the East Coast. We often have the notion that North America in 1492 was pristine and untouched by people, allowing trees to grow into an immense phalanx. It wasn’t so.
Historical ecologists know that North America’s vegetation had been altered by people ever since humans colonized the continent some 11,000 years ago. The Eastern Forest that European explorers found had burned frequently, with most fires started by Native Americans. This created an open woodland of massive trees. Sunlight reached the ground, stimulating a dense growth of wildflowers and grasses. There was little brush, making it relatively easy to walk through the woods.
Prior to the settlement of North America by mostly Europeans, the land burned often enough that vegetation became dependent upon frequent fire. Indigenous people set fires because the resulting landscape produced more food from an increased abundance of wildlife and acorns, berries, and other edible plants stimulated by fire. Europeans generally viewed fire as an enemy and began suppressing it almost as soon as they colonized the continent. This fire aversion is reinforced by modern newscasts showing burned-out homes and towns.
FIRE IS A NATURAL FORCE LIKE THE WEATHER
Like the weather, fire is a natural force that sculpts the landscape and its vegetation. Many ecosystems decline in health when years go by without the rejuvenating impact of a burn. Areas suffering from fire starvation tend to build up flammable brush and tree debris, creating a potentially devastating future fire.
BASIC FIRE BEHAVIOR
Knowledge of the predictable aspects of a fire helps us manage burns near our home at Winding Pathways as well as helping fire managers plan prescribed burns and fight out-of-control fires. Fires generally burn most vigorously when:
- The humidity is low.
- The wind is strong because fires burn faster with the wind.
- There is a steep slope because fires tend to burn fastest uphill.
- There is an abundance of dry fuel.
We take all these factors into account before we start a fire. For example, if we want our fire to move slowly and be easiest to control, we set it to run against the wind, downhill, and at a time when the humidity is high, usually before 10 a.m. If the area is reluctant to burn, we’ll do it when the humidity is low and plan it to go with the wind and upslope.
Start the burn into the wind.
Work together to manage the burn.
Our son-in-law who also is skilled at managing burns helped us one spring.
The side fire burned uphill slowly.
Fire stops at the firebreak.
Common tools make fire burning safe.
Keep the hose ready to suppress fire.
Pattern of fire after the burn.
SAFETY FIRST WHEN BURNING
Early in the season, we get a fire permit from the county. It requires us to check the air quality and only burn on days when it is good. We call the sheriff’s office before we burn so they are aware of our activity. We also prepare firebreaks and reinforce our nonburn able asphalt driveway with mowed strips of lawn. Before lighting it, we have our water turned on, the hose stretched out and ready if we need it, and have a backpack fire pump called a “Smith Indian” ready to use to stop or slow the burn.
AVOID PREDICTABLE PROBLEMS
It is tragic when communities and homes are ignited by wildfires. Almost all are in Western coniferous woodlands or in California’s chaparral vegetation. These plants burn with extreme heat and create embers that blow in the wind, igniting new patches of forests and homes. Ironically many western plants, including Lodgepole pine and chaparral require fire to seed or be invigorated, yet people often disregard the risk and build fire-prone homes within historically fire-prone areas. Building a home in a flammable wood is akin to building in a floodplain or on a bluff over the ocean. It’s risky. Always have good insurance and follow fireproofing directions provided by the US Forest Service, insurance companies and others. In contrast, fires in Eastern deciduous woods rarely ignite homes. Here are a few resources for tips on how to reduce the odds that a wildfire will ignite a home:
Sierra Club and Protecting Your Home from Wildfire
The US Forest Service has extensive information online on how to protect a home from fire.
Individual Insurance Companies also provide information on fire protection.
We appreciate watching the impact of prescribed burns on the plants at our home at Winding Pathways. In the spring following a fall burn our savanna ephemeral wildflowers thrive and grace our property with color. By summer prairie wildflowers dance in the wind in our front yard. We’ve attached a few photos of our fires and resulting wildflowers.
The ancient tree sprouted leaves and flowers all over.
Early spring arrival
An early wildflower for pollinators.
Fall wildflowers are an important food source for insects and birds.
Monarda mixed with yellow coneflowers
Purple Coneflowers add color to a prairie.
Savoring Seed Catalogs
There’s a surefire way to tell we are in the depths of winter. It’s the arrival of garden seed catalogs in the mail. We get many at Winding Pathways.
Seed catalogs make great winter reading.
Some come from massive companies that sell a wide range of flower and vegetable seeds plus tree seedlings and garden supplies. Others are from companies that specialize in one type of seed or plant, like fruit tree seedlings or prairie plants.
We buy vegetable seeds in late winter from either the Dutchman’s Store in Cantril, Iowa, or the Stringtown Grocery near Kalona, Iowa. Both are run by Mennonites or Amish people and sell bulk seeds. Scoop a spoonful from a large jar and deposit them in a small envelope. Then write the code and vegetable name on the envelope and pay on the way out. We’ve found the seeds to be of excellent quality and much less expensive than similar ones sold in stores or through catalogs or the computer.
Not everyone has access to a bulk seed store, so buying prepackaged seeds makes sense. Sometimes seed catalogs list vegetable varieties we want to try and can’t get otherwise. This year, for example, we will plant a new dwarf winter squash. The vines are short and the fruits just the right size for two people.
We usually buy trees from the National Arbor Day Foundation, and prairie plants from Prairie Moon Nursery. Arbor Day Foundation trees are small but we’ve had excellent results from them, and they are inexpensive.
In early 2020 we plan to convert about 3,000 square feet of lawn to low profile pollinator habitat. We’ll buy a prairie seed mix from Pheasants Forever (pfhabitatstore.com). They have many mixes available that are suitable for different soils. They are most appropriate for larger areas.
Happy Planning and Planting.
Winding Pathways appreciates and enjoys quality tools. So, we have an affiliate relationship with Acme Tools. We do this because of their quality tools, supplies, and outstanding customer service.
Acme Tools carries multiple brands. All are of high quality. They are reliable, safe, and user-friendly. People come in different sizes. Customers can find different sized tools comfortable for anyone of any size to use.
After years of using bargain tools that frequently broke or failed, Winding Pathways went to Acme Tools and purchased various Milwaukee Brand tools. They cost a little more upfront. In the long run, this purchasing philosophy has saved us money and reduced frustration.
Quality tools sold by Acme Tools last a long time and, unlike cheaper counterparts, can be repaired.
Here are some Milwaukee items we have purchased at Acme Tools and enjoy using.
Apparel – Jackets, Gloves, and more
Hand Tools – Screwdrivers, hammers, measurers, squares, and more
A New World Thanksgiving
Almost every meal Americans enjoy comes from animals and plants that trace their origin to many continents.
Cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs, for example, are all natives of the Old World brought to America soon after it was settled by Europeans. Wheat, rice, and many other plant foods are also newcomers that were unknown to Native Americans.
One annual feast mostly made from original American foods is Thanksgiving. This year why not create this traditional feast from entirely plants and animals that were found here before Columbus?
Turkey highlights the Thanksgiving dinner. See our previous blog on this amazing and tasty bird. Here are plants native to North and South America to complement roast turkey:
Fruits and Vegetables
Corn: Corn has been grown in Central America for thousands of years. It’s cultivation gradually spread north and east and became a staple food for Native Americans. When hungry Pilgrims landed in what became Massachusetts they found and stole caches of corn stored by local tribes, no doubt causing bad feelings.
Cranberries: Most commonly eaten fruits originated in Europe or Asia, but the cranberry is an American native.
Squash and Pumpkins: Dozens of varieties of winter squash come in many shapes, colors and sizes, and the pumpkin is actually a squash. Butternut, Hubbard, acorn, or any other squash is delicious on the Thanksgiving dinner table, and dessert of pumpkin pie rounds out a tasty meal.
Potatoes: Common potatoes also originated in South or Central America and have been an important food for thousands of years. Mashed or baked, they go well with turkey, squash, and cranberries.
Sweet Potatoes: Originally from South America, these are among the most nutritious of foods. Similar yams have an African origin, so for a local dinner stick with sweet potatoes.
The sweetness from the Maples
Maple Syrup: While honey is made by bees that came from the Old World, maple syrup is America’s sweetener. It’s delicious on squash or sweet potatoes.
Beans: Native American gardens usually featured three plants: beans, squash, and corn. Commonly called The Three Sisters combined they create a balanced diet.
A diet of many foods that originally came from the Americas makes a delicious an interesting Holiday meal. We tend to thank modern geneticists for creating abundant food, but beans, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, cranberries, and turkey were all domesticated and enjoyed by Native Americans long before Columbus set sail.
Cranberry Pie brightens any Thanksgiving table.
Cook Wild turkey differently than domesticated ones.
Maple syrup can sweeten many Thanksgiving meals.
Mealworms in the Snow Mama and Chicks in the Snow
Hens are not dumb clucks!
We were surprised to look out the window on Veteran’s Day morning to see nearly six inches of snow outside. The predicted snow skiff turned into a dump, and we soon fired up the snowblower and put the shovels to use. This much snow in early November is unusual.
Just before we started shoveling, our chickens demonstrated their amazing ability to learn and remember. Every morning we open the pop hole door, and the hens zoom outside with enthusiasm to discover tasty bugs and weed seeds to eat. When we opened the door after the snow, our older hens peered out the door, turned around, and decided the cracked corn we scattered inside the coop was a fine breakfast. They’d remembered snow from last year and knew walking in it yielded cold toes and legs.
Most of our hens are newbies, hatched in mid-July. They’d never seen snow, and when we opened the pop hole door they roared outside, stood perplexed, walked around for a few minutes, and then came right back inside. And, the rooster sang his call from inside. No doubt their toes were cold.
Chickens are often considered witless animals lacking even a shred of intelligence. We know otherwise. Remembering snow proved that our old hens had learned what it was last winter and remembered their cold toe experience over the eight long months since the last frozen white stuff melted. Chickens are no dumb clucks.
Millipedes are ancient creatures
Many people discovered one of the oldest types of animals in their yards and homes this year. Millipedes. Usually common they have been especially visible in this humid rainy summer and fall.
Millipedes have been around for millions of years doing the world a service. Biologists call them detritivores, which simply means they eat bits of decaying leaves, grass, feces, and other organic matter found nearly everywhere. Scientists call dead material of many origins detritus. To millipedes it’s dinner.
About 12,000 species of millipedes live around the world on all continents except Antarctica. They range from about a quarter-inch to several inches long and most are brown or black. All have two pairs of legs on each body segment. Since they have many segments millipedes have enormous numbers of legs stretching down each side of their body. That doesn’t make them speedsters. Millipedes creep along.
Few animals are as harmless as millipedes. They can’t bite or sting. When threatened millipedes roll up in a ball and play possum, but normally they avoid predators by hiding in detritus or under rocks and logs. Snakes, amphibians, and birds enjoy snacking on them.
Millipedes are sometimes confused with centipedes, but they are distinctly different. Millipedes are sluggish consumers of dead plants while centipedes are swift predators. Both enter homes through cracks and holes in the walls or gaps in doors and windows. Caulking is an effective way to keep them outside.
Millipedes may seem creepy to some people but they have survived for millions of years recycling dead plant material into humus. They deserve our respect.
Can you count the millipede legs?
Answer: Millipedes take so long to lace up their shoes that the race is over by the time they finish.