Controlled Burn

Every spring plumes of smoke rise from the prairie and we know that the spring burn season has begun. Burning maintains native grass prairie by eliminating last year’s growth, controlling the invasion of trees and shrubs that would quickly turn the prairie into a woodland, and providing nutrients from the old grass to the new growth.  Burning was a regular practice of the native Americans who also used burning as a means of attracting the bison to the new green growth of spring. Later, ranchers used burning to clear pastures and improve grazing.

Every spring, Harland helps out his brother Gerald to burn off some native grassland owned by a neighbor of ours, John.  And our local fire department helps out as well to ensure that the fire doesn’t spread outside the prescribed area.  The day of the burn, Gerald mowed down a swath of grass around the area to be burned to keep it from spreading. Then about 5:30 that evening, the first fires were lit. Here,  Harland spreads the fire along the edge by carrying burning grass with a pitchfork. 

Gerald soaks down the grass along the edge to keep the fire from spreading outside the area.

Soon a line of fire spreads along the edge, while the opposite side of the field is lit and begins to burn as well.

Harland stands at the far right watching the fires.

The flames quickly rise into the sky devouring last years growth.

As he works his way around the burn area lighting fires, he meets up with the ashes of the burn started on the opposite side.

In the video below, Gerald lights fires and then watches as the flames shoot skyward and then die down as they consume the dry grass.


Here the large fire truck soaks down the edge of the burn.

Stuart beats down the edge too with a fire broom.

Stuart’s fire broom has seen better days.

When the fire burns itself out, all that’s left is a blackened hillside.

Within a week, a faint green of new grass will cover the hill.

As the first field smolders, the fire trucks refill their tanks before starting the next burn area.

 The next area to burn was alongside the pond.

It was a smaller area and went quickly.

The sun set, the fires shone in the darkness.

The last area to burn was the hillside across the pond.

About 9pm , it wound down,

and the guys gathered to watch the flames

and share a laugh after an evening’s work.


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Cattle, corn, wheat, beans, mud, snow, ice, and drought. Plenty of fresh air and quiet. Our life is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous, but never boring.

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12 Responses

  1. Kerry Hand says:

    What powerful images these are. And what skill you have to capture them. The whole activity is just so unworldly.
    Particularly I like the photos of the line of fire in the night. Sometimes here this is done on a mountainside and you can see that same sort of image from 50 kilometers away. Surreal.

  2. Kerry Hand says:

    Did I say unworldly ? Well actually you have photographed these men being very worldly.
    Your great talent is to show your rural life in it’s inherent drama and beauty.
    Hard to do but you do in beautifully.

  3. Kerry Hand says:

    Did I say unworldly ? Well actually you have photographed these men being very worldly.
    Your great talent is to show your rural life in it’s inherent drama and beauty.
    Hard to do but you do it beautifully.

  4. Tina says:

    I understand why you do it but it is still very frightening. It could go out of control in a heatbeat. Be careful out there!

  5. Jen says:

    We moved to Kansas 7 years ago this April and I knew nothing about Kansas or the controlled burns. As we traveled through rural Kansas, I was stunned at the barren, black country side that smelled like smoke. I remember being horrified at what I saw and missing the snow that I had left in Maine. I was NOT impressed with my first view of Kansas! However, in a few days, when the green grass started to shoot through the black, it was an amazing transformation! 7 years later, I look forward to the burns, the smell, the bright orange-red glow at night and the plumes of black smoke. Spring is on it’s way! 🙂

    Thanks for your pictures…I love looking at them~

    • Suzanne says:

      Hi Jen,
      That must have been a difficult change for you to move from Maine, but Kansas does have a way of growing on a person. It’s quieter and it sneaks up on you.

  6. Melanie says:

    I LOVE the photo with the reflection of the burn in the water!! We drove to my parents this weekend and there were fires for as far as we could see in all directions. .Just gorgeous!!

  7. Dianna says:

    Looks scary to me!

  8. Sally Bishop says:

    We’ve had some UNcontrolled burns happening around us this weekend. Ruidoso NM is experienceing some severe brush fires. These controlled burns can be very important.

  9. Love the photos! I’ve never seen a controlled burn. I think it would be fun to watch. Pretty neat!

  10. Peggy says:

    I love your photos. Your so brave to get in there. My friends from Missouri are doing the same thing. I’ve never seen it though. I would love to see it in person. I bet it’s pretty cool at night.

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