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It's time to set the Flint Hills on fire

Staff writer

Marion County ranchers are not to be confused with hillbilly pyromaniacs.

From March into May, land owners will be setting their pastures ablaze. Some do it to clear brush, others to clear pasture.

It is a necessary part of living in the Flint Hills of Kansas — even the guys who have to police blazes when things go awry, such as Marion Fire Chief Mike Regnier, say so.

“It’s something they need to do to keep pastures clean, something that’s been done forever,” Regnier said.

Burning pastures clears old grass to make way for new grass that will be higher in protein content, to make for better cattle forage. Burning removes unwanted vegetation, brush, and weeds, as well.

“There is a need to keep everything done correctly. Most who do it are good about it.”

Regnier said the main problems are ones mother nature causes, and rancher Chuck McLinden concurs.

McLinden said burns are necessary each year for some pastures, and there’s a window during which controlled burns can take place. That window closes in early May, and mid-April for some areas. While Kansas State recommends to wait until the new grass is 1½ inches tall, McLinden says most ranchers start earlier.

“This year I’m gonna have 15,000 acres of my own to burn, with wind and rain and all that goes with it,” McLinden said. “Us guys that have been doing it a long time generally start in late March mostly because we have a lot of burning to do.”

McLinden said any pasture of his is burned, on average, two of every three years.

“I’ll put it this way: There’s no book or set standard of rules you can use to apply to burning,” he said. “Mother nature dictates what you do.”

McLinden said the burns are generally impromptu affairs that require help of the neighbors. He’ll call his neighbors on the day he wants to burn pasture, and they’ll set out parameters for the burn and light it up.

To burn pasture, one must set a water line at the rear of the intended burning area, this will prevent the fire from escaping that line. Then, a blaze is set against the water line — that’s called the “back fire.” Then, downwind, the “head fire” is started, parallel to the back fire, which is parallel to the water line. The wind pushes the head fire toward the back fire, and when they meet, there’s nothing left to burn, and the fire goes out.

Of course, there is a plethora of variety involved job to job.

For Nathan Brunner of Tampa, the variety is what keeps his job as a fire contractor interesting.

“It’s always something different,” Brunner said.

Brunner runs Fire 4 Hire along with his uncle, Leonard Jirak. They execute controlled burns around the state for those who cannot do it themselves or don’t want to.

Brunner said they often do areas in the conservation reserve program (CRP). The CRP burn season lasts through April 15, making March through early April their busiest period.

Jirak, a wildlife biologist and fisheries consultant, said the burning is a definite benefit to the environment.

“From a historical perspective, that’s how we had prairies in the Midwest, fires maintained the grass and kept the forest from covering everything,” he said. “The long term impact is very positive, and very seldom does any wildlife get trapped in a fire. That’s rare. Most wildlife have adapted, and run away from fire.”

McLinden said the issue of burning has become politicized, which has cast a shroud over the practice.

“If the EPA and KDHE would get together, the solution would be simple,” he said. “But with politicians involved, that’s not gonna happen.”

McLinden said anti-burning advocates will cite harm to wildlife, out-of-control blazes, and smoke concerns.

“Some people believe it’s just not the right thing to do,” he said. “In a perfect world, I want a fire to go away from me so I don’t have to fight it so hard, but it doesn’t always work that way.”

He said ranchers are very careful to check the weather, but it’s unpredictable sometimes.

Regnier understands the nature of the business, and said he doesn’t view controlled burning as a nuisance.

“Mother nature causes us more trouble than anything else,” Regnier said.

McLinden said he’s had “three or four” serious instances in 28 years in which he lost control of a burn. He’s comfortable handling it, even though the work environment may be a bit unsettling. McLinden said he’s seen flames 40-foot high and 100-foot deep.

When asked what it looked like burning entire pastures, he said exactly what one might expect.

“It looks like hell,” he said.

Last modified March 12, 2015

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