a few prescribed fire photos

I’ll be back with more content eventually, but we’ve been busy burning. There are only so many days in the spring where the wind, humidity, fuel conditions, and personnel all align just right, so we are out there when we can. So far, we are on pace to achieve our goal of increasing our number of acres burned every year.

One point that I often forget to mention about woodland burns: we are burning the leaf litter, not the trees! With a national media, most folks only hear about fire in the context of out-of-control Western wildfires ripping through the canopies of pine forests. But in the lower Midwest, we are dealing mostly with deciduous forests filled with species that drop their leaves annually. The fire’s fuel is on the ground, not up in the air. Fire-adapted trees, especially oak species, have thick layers of bark that prevent them from catching fire, in addition to being full of moisture. (Last year I wrote a little about why we burn).

Well… now that I say that, there are a couple pines in this photo. We decided to save these individuals because it wasn’t too much work and we like having some around. We just wet the trunks down and passed the fire slowly underneath them. Pines can be susceptible to catching fire as the live leaves (needles) are flammable; they also lack the thick protective bark of the oaks. What you don’t see in this photo is that these white pines are isolated and wouldn’t have threatened any other trees or structures even if they did catch.

Anyway, no large trees were harmed in the making of this photo! We didn’t just run up to the woods and light a match either… this photo was actually after a good 45 minutes of careful work. At this point, we knew with a good amount of certainty exactly what the fire was going to do as we laid it down.

So let’s go back to the beginning…

The following two photos are from a tiny burn unit (0.7 acres) that we affectionately call the “Brother Bob Savanna” (some readers can guess where it might be). The overstory (tallest trees) are mature black and white oaks and hickories. The understory has a large amount of rasperries and small diameter oaks and sassafras. The ground floor is a thick layer of oak leaf litter. Our management goal is not a dark, closed forest, but a more open oak woodland/savanna with both an oak overstory and plenty of herbaceous (non-woody) grasses, sedges, and wildflowers on the ground. We expect that these communities, especially on our soils, will be the best adapted to carry biodiversity through the hot and dry climate we are expecting to prevail.

Ok, let’s not get into theory, I said photos!

The photo below shows a “backburn” or “backfire.” It is the safest and most common way to initiate a prescribed fire.

I started the fire at the red star, by the large oak tree. This is at the most downwind portion of the unit. I then moved towards the yellow star, parallel to the wind. The flames lean downwind, over the firebreak (mowed grass). They move “backward” into the wind, creeping along at a slow rate. In a few minutes, this created an expanding “blackline” of burned fuel, increasing our margin of safety on that end of the unit. Once a fire burns across the oak leaves, the fuel is spent.

By the green star is one of our staff. He has the somewhat unfortunate task of staying downwind in the smoke and watching outside the unit for any escaping fire. Given the wide expanse of mowed lawn are this unit and the calm nature of the backburn, that was almost impossible, but I like to have eyes everywhere there is active flames.

The backfire may be creeping along at just a few feet per minute. Well… we don’t have all day and night. So we move next to a “strip-head fire” or “strip fire.” This is “a series of lines of fire [that] are set progressively upwind of a firebreak in such a manner that no individual line of fire can develop to a high energy level before it reaches either a firebreak or another line of fire” (source). Basically, it helps us move through the unit faster without compromising safety.

Now, you’ll have to flip around the photo perspective, the next photo was shot from the opposite direction, but its the same fire just 5-10 minutes later..

I initiated the strip burn at the red star, and moved in a line to the yellow star. I walked far enough in front of the first backburn to make it worth my while, but not so much that it would gather too much speed burning downwind. The wind was fairly strong. As you can tell in the photo, the flames on the strip burn are already larger than either backburn, just seconds after I laid down fire.


There is plenty of work associated with prescribed fire that’s not terribly exciting. Below is a photo from an adjacent woods that just wasn’t burning as hot and complete as we’d expected. The backburn I had initially set didn’t make a nice wide and solid black line, it was a little sporadic. With unburned fuel near the burn break (which separates the burn unit from the exterior) there was a small chance of a wind shift or other event reigniting that fuel. Additionally, the burn break we created here was not very wide as we wanted to minimize disturbance.

Here, Cheri had the not-so-glamorous (but important) job of slowly patrolling this end of the fire while the rest of us were continuing through the unit while we were sending smoke her direction. Thanks Cheri!

Even with a meticulously-written burn plan, the burn boss ultimately has to constantly assess the weather, fuel, fire behavior, wind, and the status of his/her equipment and staff. I always try to start each burn reminding the team of our ranked priorities:

1) Everyone gets home safe

2) Protect buildings and property

3) Achieve the burn’s objectives

4) Have fun!

Well, so much for “just a few photos.” Behind every photo is a lot of prep work, a choreography of dedicated staff, and several ecology lessons!

guest post: “Rain, Rain Go Away?”

Here’s another brief note from Ancilla College campus minister Albert Escanilla, reflecting on the 2018 flooding in Northern Indiana (which I covered here and here with one more still to come). Followed by a couple photos.

It was late February morning, and the birds’ singing outside was a warm welcome from our eventful February month surrounding the topic of the weather.  The last several weeks of February was a time where we saw some of Mother Nature’s fury. We began with a blizzard in the second week of February, then followed by a thick fog and heavy rain, which then resulted in severe flooding all across the Marshall and Starke Counties. All these weather occurrences proved to be troublesome to the Center at Donaldson communities, especially to our coworkers and student commuters.

All these weather related happenings were burdensome to many, even though it has always been part of Mother Nature’s course. However, when looking at the contrasting views from that statement, “burdensome” and “always been”, it prompts the question of why it is so? Our struggles and frustrations surrounding the inevitable (weather), are often derived from our impressions of how Mother Nature “ought to be”, and how she “must conform to us”, instead of us needing to conform to her.

Therefore, if our mindsets were to shift, could we see Mother Nature’s “fury” be more so as a “friendly reminder”? Is it possible to view the blizzard, and the fog to be symbolic of our own clouded and worried mind; which many can agree the need for us to slow down in our self-imposed “busyness”? Can the heavy rains and current flooding, which forced many to take alternative routes to work, be seen as a metaphor of our lives needing a different route from what we are comfortable with?  After all, Marshall and Starke Counties’ swamp flooding are never a burden to Mother Nature, it is only so for us as we forget that our status quo does not equate to Mother Nature’s will.

Mother Nature can teach us vast amounts of knowledge, as she has unique ways of reminding us of our “human-ness”, and how Our Divine Creator works. As the great scientist, Albert Einstein had once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Thus, if we are to be more mindful and in harmony, our resistance (“ought to be”) should shift into acceptance (“is”); and that slight adjustment, does make an immense difference.

“Some people feel the rain. Others just gets wet.” -Bob Marley -Albert Peace.

I had posted this photo earlier. It was taken March 5, 12 days post-rainfall, looking East. You are looking at about a million gallons of water.

If you will please excuse my poor photography skills, below is a photo from yesterday morning, March 23. It is from the same side of the road, but looking Northeast. The surface water is finally almost gone, though there is plenty of left in the soil and just below the surface. This pasture stored water for over a month. There has been a little precipitation in the meantime, but not much… we’ve been pretty dry, and sunny (lots of evaporation and evapotranspiration). This was plenty of time for floodwaters to recede, and even enough time for certain small animals, insects, or microorganisms to complete critical portions of their life cycles (if the surrounding habitat were appropriate). It may have also provided a brief resting spot for the waterfowl that have been migrating northward.

some recent stories and research

Feeling a little busy now. Sunny days are here. Crocuses are blooming… and I’m scrambling to get the logistics lined up for spring burns.

Lots of news… below is a peak over my shoulder at what I’m reading these days. No time now to comment/blog on each of these stories individually (for what that’s worth!).

But first, a photo quiz. Any idea what we’re doing here? I spent several hours up at the Dunes Lakeshore last week…

Another (easy) quiz. What happened here? Can’t believe how lucky I was to find this scene… not staged, I promise!


Ok, now news…

1) The New York Times put together an amazing piece on Louisiana’s disappearing coastal lands: “Left to Louisiana’s Tides, A Village Fights for Time“. One quote in the story: “It is the largest ecological catastrophe in North America since the Dust Bowl.”

2) The Purdue University Climate Change Research Center just dropped the first installment of their Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment.

One particularly eyeball-popping projection is for Southern Indiana, where number of extreme heat days (>95 degrees F) is expected to rise from an average of 7 days per summer to 38-51 days.

3) The Indianapolis Star did a piece on the status of Indiana forests. I feel they covered several important ecological points quite well, although I’m not crazy with the somewhat misanthropic headline.

4) “Indiana DNR proposes to allow hunting and trapping of bobcats.” (IndyStar)

4) “Spring is running 20 days early. It’s exactly what we expect, but it’s not good.” (Washington Post)


5) Climate change events plotted against your personal life timeline.

6) “Notre Dame encouraging kids to combat climate change.” (ABC 57)

7) New data is in on overwintering monarchs. What we might do about it.

8) “Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration” (Rolling Stone). Haven’t read yet, but an eye-catching title.

2018 flood revisited (part 1): implications of land use

Ok, I promised to follow up coverage of the historic northern Indiana flood with a little science. We’ll start first with hydrology, then move to climate in part 2. Human economies and cultures intersect with both of these.

Six inches or more of rain came down from Feb 19-21. This is more than we might typically get over the entire months of January and February. This also occurred after a large snow melt off, so the soils were already completely saturated.

Where does the water go? Temperatures were cool, so there was almost no evaporation happening. A small amount of water percolated down into the water table, but this is typically a slow process and doesn’t happen everywhere. The rest had to go somewhere. A large amount of water flows horizontally through the soil and can re-emerge at ditches and streams, where the water table meets the surface. The rest of the water flows over land.

There is a lag time between the rain event and the peak crest of a large stream or river, as water takes some time to make its way to the central channel. Through land use changes, we have shortened up this lag time and our waterways are now “flashier” than they would be in a more vegetated state; that is, they reach peak quicker and at a higher altitude (flood).

Image by Recon Media / Josh Walker, Feb 21, 2018. Just before peak crest.

What changes have we made? Esteemed Indiana botantist Paul Rothrock writes,

Since the early nineteenth century the Indiana landscape has undergone a massive transformation. In the pre-settlement period, Indiana was an almost unbroken blanket of forests, prairies, and wetlands. Much of the land was cleared, plowed, or drained for lumber, the raising of crops, and a range of urban and industrial activities.

In the 1904 Marshall County soil survey, the authors notes:

The greater part of the county was originally covered with a heavy growth of timber, consisting principally of walnut, oak, and poplar. This timber, except that little that was used for building material, was either burned or destroyed in any possibly way to clear the land. As the country because more thickly settled and transportation facilities improved, the lumber business became an important industry in the development of the county. The period from 1860 to 1870 was the most prosperous for this industry.

These changes meant less vegetated cover in the “headwaters” (upper reaches) of our watershed. Each branch, leaf, and stem can absorb moisture. It also caused a massive drop in the soil organic carbon (SOC) which was released into the atmosphere. SOC is the principal determinant of a soil’s water-holding capacity. Wetlands that used to hold large amounts of water on the surface for weeks after a storm released water immediately. Instead of being held upstream and slowly released downward and outward, water now flows straight through or over the soils.

A network of open ditches were dug when Europeans colonized the area. They are maintained on a regular basis by county taxpayers to keep wetlands in agricultural production and low-lying roads open. The county maintains rights to these easements through public property. This ditch on our property was just “cleaned” last month. However, there do not appear to be any provisions for erosion control, re-vegetation, or advanced engineering like two-staged ditches. Sediment inevitably is re-deposited and taxpayers will pay to have this excavated again in a few years.

Lastly, impervious surfaces – like roofs and parking lots – move water even faster than agricultural lands. There is almost no infiltration and water is quickly moved to waterways (along with spilled oil, grime, chemicals, fertilizers, and salt).

Below is a 2016 land cover map of Marshall County (complements of IndianaMAP). Yellow is corn, green is soybeans. 75% of the county is in farmland, just as it was 114 years ago. The light/teal-green color is forest, which is more prominent in the Western half (water from here does not flow through the City of Plymouth). Dark blue is open water, pink is grasslands and pastures.

Gray is urban/industrial. Plymouth is clearly visible in the center. Much of the gray area has impervious surfaces, where water is quickly sent to communities downstream. Water flowed off of these surfaces, into ditches, and eventually to the city of Knox, where large flooding damage also occurred. Ripple effects.

The image below is a hydrograph of the Yellow River during this flood event. I drew a hypothetical green line over top of it to illustrate what a reference (natural) watershed would look like. The river rises slower, peaking at a later date and at a lower elevation. Hypothetically, flood damage is reduced and water quantity and quality is improved. (Caveat: the actual scale of this change, or the peak crest, is completely unknown and not necessarily even useful, other than for illustration).

It can be tempting for a largely urban population to point fingers at the shrinking number of farmers raising our food. But we have all inherited the industrial/European model of living on the land, and of course most of our families can trace our routes back to farmers. The economic/agricultural system we created rewards drained soils. Indeed, they are some of the most productive in the country when it comes to producing annual grains, and investment in drainage usually pays back quite handsomely. As I drove to work after the flood, I saw still more drain tile being installed.

Private drainage does not account for the very real downstream costs of water pollution and flood damage. This is similar to us non-farmers commuting great distances to our workplaces. We are imposing very real and sizable air pollution costs on others (what economists call “externalized costs”) while we privately benefit from the transportation. Additionally, many of us suburbanites and urbanites have ourselves inherited farmland and rent it out to farmers growing annual grains on drained land. How to we humans behave? Very often in our own narrow and short-term economic self-interest.

Even with all the land modification, it has been remarkable to see how long some of the water has been ponded up. I drove west on US 30 towards Valparaiso yesterday (March 6), 13 days post-rainfall. There were still huge fields full of water, one was lined by hundreds (maybe thousands) of Sandhill Cranes probing the mud for kernels of grains or perhaps some invertebrates. This, of course, was the old Kankakee wetland, the everglades of the north.

The photo below was taken March 5, 12 days post-rainfall. You are looking at about 4 acres of water. Let’s presume the average depth is about one foot. That’d be 4 acre-feet of water, or 1.3 million gallons of water. We currently use it as pasture, letting the cows convert the solar-powered grass into beef.

With a big outlay of cash, I suppose it could be drained (It has been farmed in the past). If so, that 1 million+ gallons of water would not be sitting in this field, but would be in the basements and living rooms of the residents of Knox, IN, or anywhere else downstream. That is ultimately the choice we have to all make. We can’t stop floods, and we don’t get to choose when the rains come, but we do get to decide how we raise food and use the land.

the current state of climate science

Last November, the Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) was published. The CSSR “is designed to be an authoritative assessment of the science of climate change, with a focus on the United States, to serve as the foundation for efforts to assess climate-related risks and inform decision-making about responses.”

If you can navigate Twitter, click here to read this thread from scientist Katharine Hayhoe (when it pops up, just keep scrolling down the screen). Ms. Hayhoe provides very brief highlight of this 477 page report on what the science is telling us. The brevity and images really bring the message home.

(As an aside: Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and Evangelical Christian.  She’s a tireless advocate for making climate science accessible via her YouTube channel, “Global Weirding.” She also travels around giving talks about how to talk about climate solutions without alienating folks in sub-populations that reject the prevailing science on anthropogenic global warming).

The conclusions are:

*”the past 115 years are now the warmest in the history of modern civilization… the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe

*”The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago

*”it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence
*”thousands of studies… have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor
*”A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out
*”There is broad consensus that the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts, some of which are potentially large and irreversible.”

I highly recommend taking time to read the Executive Summary. The text is only 22 pages and takes about 40 minutes to read.

So, what does this mean?

The report very specifically avoided making policy prescriptions:

In accordance with this purpose, it does not include an assessment of literature on climate change mitigation, adaptation, economic valuation, or societal responses, nor does it include policy recommendations.”
In my mind, it means thus:

It means that we need to evaluate our institutions, behaviors, politicians, and organizations based on whether or not they help or hinder our transition to a low/zero-carbon human economy.

Alex Steffen has made some interesting prognostications around climate and energy policy, I’ll leave you with his piece (after, of course, you’ve read the executive summary from thousands of our top scientists).

The Smokestacks Come Tumbling Down: why momentum is building towards a snap forward in climate action