Controlled Burn

So today is Monday, April 4, 2011. Over the weekend Melissa had the opportunity to do something pretty cool and even though I wasn’t with her I thought I’d write about it anyway. Plus she shot some video on her camera that’s pretty cool to watch.

In the past I’ve written about the Effigy Mounds that we have here in southwest Wisconsin. In particular I’ve told you about Frank’s Hill that our neighbor has about 5 minutes away where we hike often and also go to for events on the solstices that feature the HoChunk Indians.

Well last week as I was reading through our local town newspaper, The Progressive, when I noticed an article that was asking for volunteers to help Frank and the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway conduct a controlled burn on the Hill. Melissa and I had been hiking on the hill just the day before and we saw a lot of brush that had been piled up in various places. So we figured they needed help burning it and generally cleaning up the hill.

So on Saturday after taking the trash and recycles over to Eagle, Melissa went over to Frank’s Hill to help out. Turned out that about 10 people had shown up to help. Along with a few representatives from the local fire dept. They started on the North Hill first.

Frank’s Hill used to be used as grazing land. And the cattle would eat just about everything – hemlock, oak, etc. except cedar. So now as the natural prairie slowly begins to regain a foothold, you have tons of grass and other vegetation that has taken over. Over the course of the summer grasses and weeds grow to be fairly high – a couple of feet in some cases. During the winter all of that grass and those weeds get trampled under all of the snow and ice. What you have left is a matted cover of dead grass.

So when Melissa went over to the Hill on Saturday we quickly learned what a controlled burn is. And no, it wasn’t burning all of the brush we had seen piled up.

Turns out a controlled burn is where they actually light all of that grass on fire! First they start at the top of the hill and burn a line along the top. They do this as a control line. (Note to all: These are terms I’m making up to best explain this– not the real ones I’m sure!) Then they slowly “walk” the fire down the hill by raking the burning grass down onto grass below it, etc.

Franks Hill the day after the burn. Smelled like a pencil sharpener.

The incredible thing about this is that as the fire burns, it gets just hot enough to burn off the grass and some weeds. (But unfortunately not all of the weeds).

The area that they burned (probably a few acres) included all types of grass and weeds (including some really nasty brambly thing that even the dog hates to go through because of the thorns) as well as trees and some bushes. Both cedar and pine trees. As the fire gets to the trees it’s not hot enough to do any damage to them. Upon closer inspection yesterday, it looks like it got a little hot on the bottom of said trees but that was it. Incredibly, a lot of the sturdier weeds and bushes didn’t even look like they had seen any effect from the burn whatsoever. The grass however was almost all burned off, giving the hillside a really pretty 2-tone look from the distance.

So now, as we move into spring (although winter seems not to want to go away), new grass and vegetation will be able to take the place of the old, dead grass. What we’re really looking forward to is seeing the green emerge from the black of the burned off hillside. That emerging green should look beautiful as it comes up, contrasting with the brown of the areas that weren’t burned as well as the black of the parts that were.

So yesterday we went over and hiked the hill so we could see the results of the fire. Pretty cool process that’s actually good for the land. As we got to the bottom of the hill – on the bank of Snake Creek, we sank in about 4 inches of sand and mud that is the result of the melt off of the winter snow. The dog, despite still being on a leash because of his ACL surgery, absolutely loved it. He had a great time getting all muddy and kicking around in the creek. And as we made our way through the mud and sand we saw some of the first signs of spring.

This bulb was breaking through the soil down by the creek.

We’re not sure what they are, but they’re coming up out of the ground just as sure as can be all along the edge of the creek. Now we’re just waiting for the first few buds on the trees.

Thanks Frank!

CHECK OUT VIDEO OF THE BURN HERE!!!

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