A hot topic: to burn or not to burn? – Post bulletin

My sweet husband is some kind of arsonist. When we first got married, we quickly realized that was just a part of her being. Some people like to shop in their spare time. Others like to go for car rides, while others like golf. Pat likes to burn.

If I’m away from the house on weekends, chances are he’ll be lighting small “brush piles” or chopping firewood, creating new piles to burn later. His mantra is simple – there’s no such thing as wood burning in the winter, and he’s absolutely right, but I still have to give him a hard time.

However, when he announced that it was a perfect day to burn the meadows on our property, I totally agreed. It was going to be some sort of Goldilocks day; it had rained recently so the humidity was good, a nice breeze (not too gusty to make a fire out of control, but just enough to fan the flames a bit) and extra hands (our son Alex and his girlfriend, Lauren) were available to help. The sun was shining, which put everyone in a good mood.

Why would we do that, you might ask? Was Pyro Pat out of control?

As it turns out, no. Historically, fires have moved across the plains due to lightning and human activity. Native plant communities have evolved with fire. Burning the grassland returns nutrients to the soil, encourages rapid regrowth and helps prevent invasive species from taking hold. The fire also kills woody plants that would otherwise take over. In fact, at our house, busy squirrels in the adjacent forest did a great job of caching food for the winter – forgotten black walnuts sprouted all over the meadow.

Given the chance (no fire or mowing), our meadow would naturally revert to a wooded state, and that’s not something we want. Only a tiny fraction (1%!) remains of the original 18 million acres of native grassland that once covered the southern and western parts of the state, according to the Minnesota DNR. With that in mind, all systems were “going” for a burn.

Wildlife, including this turkey, has been uplifted by grassland burning.

Contributed / Melissa Gerken

As the flames began to reach the sky, evidence of hidden life became evident. Wild turkeys suddenly sprang from the dry grass, flying hastily to avoid danger. Recently returned song sparrows perched on raspberry bushes kept their eyes on the fire as it closed in. A red-tailed hawk hovered above the outskirts of the fire, seeking an easy meal.

Indeed, after the passage of the fire, the falcon dropped on the ashes, seized an unlucky rodent and devoured it whole. Later, a twinkle from the north landed on a newly exposed anthill, in anticipation of a feast. Satisfied with another safely accomplished burn, the crew pulled out the cooler and poured a beer (or two!) in celebration.

At dusk that night, we took a break from the television and headed outside. A “Peent!” distinct and repetitive nasal emanated from a part of the grassland we intentionally left untouched – a solitary male woodcock announcing his presence to the ladies. Lucky to witness her aerial courtship, we followed her round figure as she soared skyward and then down as she tumbled, all atwitter, back to dry land (for those who don’t don’t know the woodcock’s spring ritual, it’s worth a YouTube request).

A healthy meadow truly buzzes with life, especially during the warmer months. Insects are attracted to the blooming flowers and succulent growth, which in turn attract hungry songbirds, bats and snakes. Wild turkeys and ring-necked pheasants nest and raise their young among the thick, protective grasses, taking advantage of the assortment of insects.

A meadow in July is undeniably beautiful; I dare say even magical at sunset. For now, the landscape may be brown and uninspiring, but warm, green days lie ahead. Prairie grasses will regrow with the promise of new life to come. We can hardly wait. And Pat? He’s already talking about next year’s burn!

Author’s note: Prescribed burns, as they are called, should only be carried out by people with the proper training/equipment. MNR permits are required. For more information, contact your county SWCD or extension office.

Melissa Gerken and her patient husband Pat reside in Zumbrota. She describes herself as a bird nerd, aspiring stargazer, and a lover of all things wild. She enjoys sharing her passion for nature with others.

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Jessica C. Bell