The Great Plains: Where prescribed burns are a community collaboration rather than a federal effort

A fire-focused NPR article had a concise central theme: Trees are not always good, fire is not always bad, and prescribed burning can bring a community together.

The article, written and beautifully photographed in 2022 by journalist Andria Hautamaki, told the story of the Loess Canyon Rangeland Alliance to paint a larger picture of the quick growth prescribed burn associations (PBAs) have had across the country, particularly in states without huge extents of government-owned land.

The Great Plains Fire Science Exchange estimated in 2022 that there were 113 PBAs throughout the United States. That exchange now estimates 135 PBAs, an 83 percent increase in under two years.

RxFire by Florida Panther NWR
Plants flourish after a prescribed fire. Image courtesy Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

PBAs got their start in California and are now found throughout the state. Despite this, California is an outlier in the average states with PBAs: nearly half of California’s land is federally owned. Other states with numerous PBAs (including Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas) have less than 2 percent of their land owned by the federal government.

Prescribed Burn Associations Interactive Map
PBA interactive map at gpfirescience.org

Instead of the USFS burning on federal land, stakeholders in non-West states must convince and collaborate with landowners to spread the gospel of prescribed fire.

“The only way you’re ever going to get fire on the ground is through the landowners, especially in states with a lot of private land,” John Weir, an Oklahoma State University extension specialist for prescribed fire, told Hautamaki during the story. “This is landowner helping landowner. Agencies are important; they help provide technical assistance. But it’s all about grassroots. Landowners can burn safely and effectively because they’re out there managing their own land.”

An abundance of privately owned land isn’t the only thing driving PBA popularity in non-West states. The negative perception fire has gained from numerous disastrous wildfires in recent years has hampered Rx burn efforts in the West. Midwest and Southern states, which don’t have that same negative association with burning, have seen a rise in a grassroots-led fire efforts rather than an agency push.

Previous data have also shown the community-prescribed fire drive to be safe and effective in overcoming common burn limitations related to expertise, equipment, and personnel. A 2012 survey of PBAs found the majority were effective at developing burn plans, working within burn windows, and limiting liability.

“The safety record of PBAs indicates they provide a safe and viable option for landowners and managers who use or would like to use prescribed fire on their lands,” the survey said.

 

A prescribed burn stalled a huge Texas fire — and Smokehouse Creek Fire hits the million-acre mark

Aerial images from Hutchinson County, Texas shot with a drone yesterday show the aftermath of a huge fire adjacent to a 7-mile swath of land that was prescription burned a few months ago near Borger, a Panhandle town of about 12,000 in north Texas.

Borger, Texas
Borger, Texas, on Wednesday. Photo by City of Borger / Hutchinson County Office of Emergency Management.
15:08 CST 02/29
15:08 CST 02/29

Northeast of there, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest of at least five other active fires in the Panhandle, has burned over 1 million acres, leaving charred homes and buildings behind. The fire’s doubled in size since 03:00 CST on 02/28.

The drone images in a CNN report feature a 7-mile prescribed burn that was conducted a few months ago.

Officials with Borger’s Office of Emergency Management said the prescribed burn prevented a fire flank from spreading into the southern parts of the town, including the Meadowlark, Country Club, and Bunavista areas.

Borger map

“As much damage as we have, our proactive efforts did prevent even more,” Hutchinson County officials said. — [Panhandle fires photo gallery]

The fires in Texas and Oklahoma have burned so much land that the blackened ground is visible from space. Satellite imagery captured burn scars stretching from the Texas Panhandle into western Oklahoma Wednesday afternoon.

Satellite images from Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon show burn scars in the Texas Panhandle in the wake of devastating fires. CIRA/RAMMB
Satellite shots show burn scars in the Texas Panhandle in the wake of devastating fires. CIRA/RAMMB images.

Burn scars are often a combination of burned vegetation, debris, and a scorched layer of soil. In the satellite image above, the burn scar appears as charcoal gray and black against the tan unburned ground around it.

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Chris and Alison.

Lomakatsi summit at Sun River focused on fire

Inside the Homestead Conference Hall at Sunriver Resort in central Oregon last week, six Native Americans sang, danced, and drummed with volume enough to rattle windows. The powerful performance by the Mountain Top Singers of the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe kicked off two days of panel discussions, networking events, and cultural celebration for tribal and nontribal guests at a Lomakatsi fire learning summit.

Leaders and youth representatives from 17 tribes in the Pacific Northwest were involved in the event, according to a Bend Bulletin report. Participants focused on improving ecological health of Pacific Northwest forests, mainly with the knowledgeable and responsible use of fire.

For more than a century, immediate suppression of wildfire was the go-to solution enacted by the Forest Service and other agencies  after lightning ignitions or human-caused starts. Wildland officials and scientists now agree that over-suppression has caused forest health to decline and has set the stage for the megafires that now rage across the West, killing humans and destroying homes and burning huge swaths of land from Mexico to northern Canada.

Jefferson Public Radio recently reported that even people who disagree vehemently about the details of the best ways to manage forests can always find some ground on managing wildlands to be more fire resilient.

The Lomakatsi Restoration Project’s Tribal Ecological Forestry Training Program focuses on collaboration with tribes and tribal communities through ecological restoration initiatives. The Program is heavily involved in the restoration work required to make forests fire resilient, using both modern technology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) from the region’s tribes, who for millennia used fire to manage the forests where they lived.

Lomakatsi film: Tribal Hands on the Land
Lomakatsi film: Tribal Hands on the Land

Lomakatsi Founder and Executive Director Marko Bey and Tribal Partnerships Director Belinda Brown talked to Jefferson Public Radio about training and a film about it, and their expanding efforts to bring more indigenous people into the fold. Lomakatsi welcomes a new cohort of young tribal adults this fall, and is especially grateful to videographer Ammon Cluff for bringing this video to life.

 

Crew members also contributed to collaborative landscape-scale restoration projects across southern Oregon, including the West Bear All-Lands Restoration Project, Rogue Forest Restoration Initiative, Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, and post-fire restoration Bear Creek, as part of the Ashland Creek Ponds Riparian and Ecocultural Restoration Project.

Lomakatsi operates programs across the ancestral lands of aboriginal peoples who lived and live in the watersheds of the Willamette River, Rogue River, Klamath River, Umpqua River, and Pit River, in what is now called Oregon and California. From sagebrush hillsides and mixed conifer forests, to oak woodlands and riverine systems, they offer respect, recognition, and gratitude to the past, present, and future inhabitants of these landscapes, to whom they dedicate this work. 

“Tribes have for time immemorial carefully managed these landscapes with carefully applied fire, with Indigenous practices. The agencies have a real interest in that at this time,” said Marko Bey, founder and executive director of Lomakatsi, the nonprofit group that organized the event in Sunriver.

Bey said the summit was an opportunity to bring tribal members together to share different skills, traditions, and adaptive management strategies. He believes that tribes can play a central role in national management of forest health.

Representatives from all nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon attended the summit. Eight additional tribes with ancestral lands in and adjacent to Oregon were also present.

Myra Johnson-Orange, 74, an elder from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, said she was pleased the conference brought together Native and non-Native people for joint learning panels.

“Sometimes, non-Native people need to understand better where we are coming from as Native people,” she said, “and how we understand the land and how we have taken care of it since time immemorial. We learn from agencies, but they are learning from Natives, too, how we need to be considered and consulted.”

Lomakatsi operates programs across the ancestral lands of aboriginal peoples who lived and live in the watersheds of the Willamette River, Rogue River, Klamath River, Umpqua River, and Pit River, in what is now called Oregon and California. From sagebrush hillsides and mixed conifer forests, to oak woodlands and riverine systems, they offer respect, recognition, and gratitude to the past, present, and future inhabitants of these landscapes, to whom they dedicate this work.

Burners light up Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois

A Nachusa fire crew hit a 24-acre project area of the grassland Tuesday, November 14, for a prescribed burn on the prairie habitat. Fire has historically been an important and natural part of the prairie; clearing the ground cover stimulates new growth, and many native plants rely on wildland fire to open seed pods and regenerate. Sauk Valley Media sent their ace photographer to track the 10-person crew at Nachusa Grasslands as they worked to put in firebreaks, put down a water line, and ignite the grasses so the fire will burn in their planned direction.

Nachusa Grasslands RxFire
Conditions were just right for a prescribed fire on November 14 at Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois. Fire managers hope to do another burn at the end of the week. Photo courtesy Alex T. Paschal.

The 4,100-acre Nachusa Grasslands preserve consists of large remnant prairie, woodlands, and wetlands reconnected through habitat restoration to create one of the largest and most biologically diverse grasslands in Illinois. Including 4,000 acres of restored and remnant prairie, Nachusa Grasslands is home to 180 species of birds, more than 700 native plant species, and a herd of bison.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the core of the preserve in 1986, recognizing that Nachusa offered a terrific opportunity to restore a diverse native grassland.

Working hand-in-hand with Nature Conservancy staff, volunteer stewards collect and plant seeds, manage invasive species, repair wetlands, and conduct prescribed burns to preserve this ecosystem.

RxFire Nachusa
Prescribed burning: A volunteer fire crew sets a prescribed burn at Nachusa Grasslands preserve in Illinois. ©Andrew Simpson / The Nature Conservancy

The Friends of Nachusa Grasslands has a calendar online for its volunteer workdays; hunting season is scheduled in early December and the spring RxFire season will start up in March 2024. If you’re interested in volunteer opportunities, most workdays are scheduled on Thursday and Saturdays.

The Nachusa Grasslands and its visitor center are south of Rockford, Illinois and about a 2-hour drive west of Chicago.
The Nachusa Grasslands and its visitor center are south of Rockford, Illinois and about a 2-hour drive west of Chicago.

The Friends organization is established to fund endowments for long-term protection of the Grasslands, conducting and encouraging stewardship, supporting science and education, and protecting the land here. Nachusa Grasslands is open from dawn to dusk, and visitors are welcome to hike in the non-fenced areas. Wildlife inhabitants include a herd of bison, which range across 1,500 acres and are often not visible from the Visitor Center or the roadsides. Almost 10 years ago, 30 bison were introduced to Nachusa Grasslands from three preserves owned by The Nature Conservancy in South Dakota, Iowa, and the Dunn Ranch in Missouri. 2013 Wind Cave National Park bison and elkWind Cave National Park bison and elk, photo ©2013 Bill Gabbert

Originally part of the herd from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, these bison have been tested and show no traces of cattle genes. No hiking is permitted inside the fenced North or South Bison Units.

The bison and the grassland vegetation species all benefit from prescribed fire and the Nature Conservancy’s fire research, and this fire — like others at the Grasslands — was timed for weather and fuels conditions that would be conducive to a controllable prescription burn.

“Wind and dry air is what determines whether we can have a burn,” Nachusa Director Bill Kleiman on Tuesday told photographer Alex Paschal.

A light south wind pushed the flames and smoke north, so crews planned for locations of the firebreaks and road warnings for motorists traveling the area. The burn was roughly an “L” shape on Carthage Road, and two separate crew units started the process on either side — so the fire could burn together in the middle.

“If the side upwind doesn’t have enough of a firebreak,” Kleiman said, “it can jump it and burn the other side.”

Alex Paschal has a photo gallery from the burn [HERE].

RxFire workforce expands under new FS agreement with Nature Conservancy

The U.S. Forest Service will fund almost $45 million over five years for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to expand the organization’s prescribed fire projects and workforce.

In a recent statement, TNC said the funding will prioritize prescribed fire in the 21 landscapes and 250 high-risk firesheds in the Western U.S., and hiring to expand the workforce started in October. TNC also received permission to work on prescribed fires in any national forest within Idaho, according to Boise State Public Radio.

“For more than a century, policies suppressing wildfire and stamping out Indigenous Peoples’ burning practices largely kept healthy fire from hundreds of millions of acres of North American landscapes that needed it,” said Marek Smith, director of TNC’s North America Fire program.

Nature Conservancy photo

The expansion is part of the FS Wildfire Crisis Strategy, specifically the program’s National Prescribed Fire Resource Mobilization.

Along with expanding its prescribed fire workforce, the strategy also calls for an expansion of both the Forest Service Fuels Academy and National Interagency Fire Training Center, which train new prescribed fire practitioners, managers, and entry-level fuels specialists. It also calls to address issues in resource availability, including overtime and hazard pay, contracts and agreements, and hiring more authorities.

A related strategy, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy is reportedly in its “final stage” of developing a national cohesive wildland fire management system. The effort began in 2009, and the final phase has been in development since 2014.

“Implementation of the National Cohesive Strategy will be undertaken in the same manner it was created — with recognition of the differences among stakeholders across the country and a vision of how we can collectively achieve more together,” the plan says. “Together, we can learn from and replicate existing collaborative behaviors and successful practices to achieve even greater success.”

Prescribed burning underway in western Oregon

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service last weekend participated in prescribed burns for habitat improvements and ecological health at the Howard Buford Recreation area near Eugene.

KEZI-TV reported that the Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah, Lane County Parks, and other conservation partners including the FWS and Rivers to Ridges worked on the burn; about 30 firefighters burned some 65 acres.

“Fire has been a really important component of the landscape,” said Ed Alverson, coordinator for Lane County Natural Areas. “And the native species that live here — the plants and the animals — are adapted to fire. In fact, burning by Calapooia People over thousands of years has helped create this species-rich landscape.”

Mt. Pisgah summit at sunset -- HikeOregon photo
Mt. Pisgah summit at sunset in Lane County, Oregon — HikeOregon photo

Mt. Pisgah is within the recreation area and is visible for miles  across the Eugene-Springfield area. It’s a favorite local destination; along with the 118-acre arboretum, the park includes some of the last remaining sizable, contiguous, native oak savannah prairie in the valley. Approximately 17 miles of trails lead up and around the 1,518-foot butte, with 360-degree views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Some trails are open for equestrian use; some are closed during seasonal prescribed fires.

The South Bottomlands burn on Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy Lane County Parks)
The South Bottomlands burn on Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy Lane County Parks)

Prescribed fire helps maintain native species in the area and helps prevent the open prairie conversion to closed forest land. Fire improves soil fertility and removes the buildup of thatch, along with reducing the risk of high-intensity fires in the future. A small wildfire near Mt. Pisgah was quickly contained early in August; the area of a 50-acre fire in 2019 now illustrates the habitat resilience in a post-fire area.

“Howard Buford Recreation Area supports one of the largest remaining blocks of prairie and oak habitats in the Willamette Valley,” said Alverson. “Fire is a regular and natural part of the environment of these habitats. We work closely with Lane Regional Air Pollution Authority and our Rivers to Ridges partners throughout the area to make sure the burn is safely implemented and will not disrupt the community.” More than a dozen prescribed fires have been conducted in the area since 1999 and more are planned in the upcoming weeks.


The annual Mt. Pisgah fall plant sale is scheduled for this weekend —  native plants will be sold on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Native Plant Nursery. The Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah nurture over 100 native plant species in their nursery. (541)674-3257

Buford Park map
Buford Park, 34639 Frank Parrish Rd., Eugene, Oregon