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Burning Nachusa Grasslands: Tagging along on a prescribed burn, trying to pay attention and learn

Tagging along on a prescribed burn at Nachusa Grasslands was a chance to learn and see up close how a well-done burn works.

Fire roars across a piece of Nachusa Grasslands in early November during a prescribed burn. Credit: Dale Bowman
Fire roars across a piece of Nachusa Grasslands in early November during a prescribed burn.
Dale Bowman

FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill.—Bill Kleiman was too polite to say, “Get your dumb ass out of the smoke.” Instead he suggested I get ahead of the smoke earlier this month during a prescribed burn at Nachusa Grasslands.

Actually I was walking downwind at the start, trying to divine what the smoke smelled like. Best comparison I could do was that it was reminiscent of a generic wood fire, the kind that comes from burning logs from a plastic-wrapped bundle bought at an old White Hen or Casey’s.

Fire is primal. Fire is staring over a cliff. In other words, fun.

“Burning is an engrossing activity,” Kleiman allowed when I caught him in a quieter moment afterwards. “But running after a fire requires a lot of attention. The crew is smiling. The fire boss is not.”

Kleiman was the burn boss for this. He debated, then made his wife Susan Kleiman, the line boss. The other possibility was Kevin Scheiwiller, who is experienced from Citizens for Conservation work. Joe Richardson was the fire scout. Rounding out the crew were Mickey Cardenas and trainees Khushali Desai and Anna Scheidel.

Bill Kleiman leads a pre-burn discussion in the field at Nachusa Grasslands. Credit: Dale Bowman
Bill Kleiman leads a pre-burn discussion in the field at Nachusa Grasslands.
Dale Bowman

This was the second time I’ve been to a burn at Nachusa Grasslands, which The Nature Conservancy began in 1986 to restore a diverse grassland. It has grown to 3,800 acres in Ogle and Lee counties.

At a pre-fire preamble, Kleiman went through the plan for the burn. He went over the basics of LCES: lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones.

Fires may be fun, but they are nothing to play with.

As to communications, all fire personnel had radios. Kleiman made a point of noting the burns have inherent noise from the fire itself to the engines of equipment. So if somebody does not hear a radio call for them, you should point to them, then pat the radio.

He made a point of saying to leave the keys in the ignition and to not lock doors, so vehicles could be quickly moved if necessary.

Susan Kleiman (right) explains some fire equipment to trainees Khushali Desai (left) and Anna Scheidel in early November before a prescribed burn at Nachusa Grasslands. Credit: Dale Bowman
Susan Kleiman (right) explains some fire equipment to trainees Khushali Desai (left) and Anna Scheidel in early November before a prescribed burn at Nachusa Grasslands.
Dale Bowman

When he finished, Susan Kleiman divvied up people to pickups, John Deere Gators, a Kawasaki MULE and a Kubota utility vehicle. For the trainees, she also showed how the various machinery worked.

Kleiman likes to drive the burn area beforehand. Sometimes a map feels different than seeing it in person. That proved out this time when Scheiwiller noted a wind shift and suggested a different start to the head fire.

Before setting the head fire, they spent a couple hours lighting a back burn as a fire break. That involves lots of work igniting with a can with fuel and a flame to start a line of fire, which took hold quickly in the dried vegetation and fanning winds. Others sprayed a mix of water and Class A foam to keep the fire from spreading out to the mowed break.

Mickey Cardenas wets the edges of a prescribed burn in early November at Nachusa Grasslands. Credit: Dale Bowman
Mickey Cardenas wets the edges of a prescribed burn in early November at Nachusa Grasslands.
Dale Bowman

It was a time-consuming task with everybody watching to make sure the fire didn’t jump in the wind. After a couple hours, the downwind perimeter was wide enough from the back fire that the head fire was ignited.

The head fire, when set, exploded outward with the pushing south-southwest winds.

Beforehand, as the back fire was set, Kleiman said, “We’ll be walking speed. Head fire is like a jog.”

He must jog a lot faster than I do, because it took off with a roar and lots of snap, crackle and pop.

“Don’t be right by the noisy part,” Susan Kleiman said.

Even with the racing head fire, some patches did not burn well and Cardenas waded in behind to ignite recalcitrant vegetation.

Prescribed burns keep natural areas from devolving into weeds, shrubs, invasives and reduced natural variety.

“Prairies do perk up the next year after a fire,” Susan Kleiman said.

At the end, while patches still flared in the blackened prairie, Kleiman gathered us for debriefing. In retrospect, he and Scheiwiller would have burned in a different direction.

When Scheidel’s turn came, she said, “It was awesome. There never was a moment of chaos.”

That was my thought.

It was time.

Nachusa is open daily sunrise to sunset. Notable draws are the 700 plant species and the bison introduced in 2014. Volunteer opportunities are plentiful. More information is at nachusagrasslands.org.