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Prescribed burns offer cure for tired prairies
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Last year the Nature Conservancy burned about 33,000 acres. About half was land the Conservancy owns, like the Bluestem Prairie. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
Burning restrictions are still in effect across much of Minnesota as dry conditions raise the danger of wildfire. But fire is also a tool that helps keep prairie landscape healthy. Nature Conservancy fire crews plan to set fire to thousands of acres of prairie this spring.

Moorhead, Minn. — A morning chill lingers in the bright sunshine as a wildfire crew straps on gear just before noon. The fire crew is preparing for a "prescribed burn." Fire is the best way to regenerate native prairie. This small patch of the Bluestem Prairie is a few miles east of Moorhead. It belongs to the Nature Conservancy.

Anton Benson is the burn boss. He spends a couple months every spring overseeing controlled burns. Last year the Nature Conservancy burned about 33,000 acres. About half was land the Conservancy owns, like the Bluestem Prairie. The rest belonged the Department of Natural Resources or private landowners.

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Image The burn boss

There's a lot more to this than just throwing a match in the grass.

Wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity are closely monitored. For this burn there are 11 firefighters, three all-terrain vehicles with water tanks, and two tanker trucks for backup.

"It's kind of a combination of a science and an art. You have to be constantly adjusting to weather conditions. We do basically everything possible to do a safe as possible a burn," he says.

Firefighters with torches spread a small trail of burning fuel. The dry prairie grasses quickly ignite. Flames crackle and dark gray clouds of smoke roll skyward.

Crews mowed a 10-foot-wide strip around the prairie they want to burn. It will serve as a fire break. The fire crew all carry 45-pound metal water tanks on their backs. They patrol the edges of the fire making sure the flames are contained.

Burn boss Anton Benson says fire is a critical management tool for restoring native prairie in Minnesota. "The prairie system here is dependent on disturbance. Some of those disturbances can be from fire, or grazing, with bison historically. We try to replicate those disturbances because there's a lot of species on the prairie that thrive and even depend upon those types of disturbances," according to Benson.

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Image Black... then green

Firefighters ring this piece of prairie with fire. Within moments, flames race with the wind, leaping 20 feet in the air and traveling nearly as fast as a running person.

When the dry vegetation is turned to ash, the flames die away, leaving behind a few tendrils of smoke and bare, black ground.

Anton Benson says green plants will appear within a week. "Throughout the summer and fall the flowering response you get from a prescribed burn is really incredible. If you visit an area that was burned a couple months previously, the floral display is really incredible. The change is really dramatic," he says.

The fire crew reloads their torches and water tanks. Weather permitting, they'll burn more prairie tomorrow.

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