Prairie Burn Season in the Midwest

Producer Mark Brush of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium offers an audio postcard from a "prairie burn" in Michigan. He spent a day with a burn crew that intentionally starts small prairie fires to help clear brush and weeds, enrich the soil and diminish the likelihood of larger fires.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, kickball. It's back and being played by sort of grown-ups. We'll go to a game.

First, in southeast Michigan, a seasonal rite: the prairies are burning. These are set fires, controlled burns, to clear last year's withered stalks and to allow new growth. But you need a crew to mind the fires and make sure they don't run wild. From the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, producer Mark Brush watched and listened.

MARK BRUSH reporting:

Good morning.

Mr. DAVID MINDELL (Contractor): Good morning.

BRUSH: Hi. How's it going?

Mr. MINDELL: Good. How are you doing?

BRUSH: Good.

Mr. MINDELL: A little dry.

BRUSH: It's pretty dry.

Mr. MINDELL: It's forecasted, I think, to be, like, 21 percent humidity.

BRUSH: OK.

Mr. MINDELL: My name is David Mindell, and I am the burn boss for this project. I'm a contractor that does ecological restoration.

The first step is we'll just take a quick walk through and rake some of the fuel around stuff we don't want to burn.

Yeah. This is the kind of thing that if fire got in here, it would burn for hours and hours and just put out a lot of smoke.

(Soundbite of raking)

Mr. LEE ROOT (Burn Crew Member): My name's Lee Root, and I just--I'm a burn crew member.

I'm filling up what's known as an Indian tank. It's a backpack frame that has a water tank and a hand pump. So you can see where the blacktop is? If that was our fire and we didn't want the fire to come onto the grass, we would just...

(Soundbite of water spraying)

Mr. ROOT: ...spray like that, and that would prevent the fire from crossing over.

Mr. ROSS ORR (Burn Crew Member): Well, my name's Ross Orr. I've been working with David for a couple of years. And we're wearing these crazy screaming yellow body suits that are flame-retardant fabric and they also just help keep us cool from the radiant heat of the burn. Big cumbersome helmets with visors that flip up and down.

(Soundbite of visor flipping up and down)

Mr. ROOT: We'll ignite using drip torches, which are these canisters filled with a mixture of diesel and gas. It's got a wick on the end, a burning wick, and as you tip the canister, it dribbles the gas-diesel mix across the wick and trails fire as you go.

(Soundbite of fire crackling)

Mr. ROOT: Yellow, yellow, lots of fire.

Ms. CATHERINE MARQUARDT (Burn Crew Member): OK. I'm going to burn it up right next to you, Lee.

Mr. ROOT: Go ahead.

Ms. MARQUARDT: All right. Here we go.

(Soundbite of fire crackling)

Mr. ROOT: David, Catherine and I are up at the end.

Mr. MINDELL: I'd say it's a similar thing, Lee, unless let you walk down the ridge top and Catherine can follow you walking on the east edge.

Mr. ROOT: All right.

Catherine, keep coming right around!

Ms. MARQUARDT: Is this one of the crab apples we wanted to save, or they're on the other end?

Mr. ROOT: I believe they're on the other end, unless there are crab apples there.

(Soundbite of crackling fire)

Ms. MARQUARDT: My name's Catherine Marquardt...

Unidentified Man #3: Thank you.

Ms. MARQUARDT: ...and I do whatever they tell me to do...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARQUARDT: ...whether it's lighting fires or putting them out. I think it kind of looks like a Dr. Seuss story, actually, sometimes, when you burn it and it's all black. You don't get to see this very often. It's very cool. And then it greens up so quickly. That's the other amazing thing, is that if you come back here in a couple days, it's already getting green. So it changes so quickly.

Mr. MINDELL: You know, I'm guessing it took maybe 45 minutes for the back burn to go a third of the way through the unit, and I think a head burn'll run through the other two-thirds in about three minutes.

(Soundbite of fire crackling; footsteps; tanks clanking)

Mr. MINDELL: And we're basically just walking around looking for things that are still smoking. Got a juniper that's smoking at the base.

(Soundbite of water spraying)

Mr. MINDELL: Going to just spray it out, this small burning bit. Burning is extremely fun, but it's also--it's a great management tool for improving the quality, the ecological quality of natural areas.

(Soundbite of birds)

CHADWICK: A Michigan prairie burn from producer Mark Brush of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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