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Updating and maintaining prescribed fire equipment

With a busy burn season ahead of us, I took some time in late October to maintain the equipment we use for prescribed burns. During a hectic spring 2021 burn season, we encountered several issues. A handful of 5-gallon backpack pumps were not functioning well and one of our drip torches was constantly acting up (especially while using the leftover “spicy” fuel mix).

During spring 2021, I noticed two of our 5-gallon backpack pumps had cracked pump cylinders and would need to be replaced. I tried applying plumber’s epoxy to the cracked cylinders last spring but the pressure created by the pump inevitably caused this epoxy to fail. Over the summer, we purchased replacement outer cylinders for the backpack pump assemblies. I rebuilt the pump assemblies and installed these cylinders last week. The pumps seems to be working properly now. We should be very diligent about making sure all water has been expelled from tanks and pump assemblies prior to winter storage to avoid cracked cylinders.

We also purchased four harnesses and two pairs of padded straps for our 5-gallon pumps. These provide a welcome upgrade over the notoriously uncomfortable thin straps that come with the backpack pumps. We now should have 6 fully functional (and comfortable!) backpack pumps for burning.

Rebuilding the troublesome drip torch was a priority for me. After inspecting the torch, I realized one if not the problem was a badly deteriorating collar gasket (the big O-ring). I replaced this gasket along with the smaller O-ring on the discharge plug. Pro-tip: Forestry Suppliers sells discharge plug O-rings for drip torches but the ones they sell are too large. I found the #9 O-rings (5/8 in. outer diameter x 7/16 in. inner diameter x 3/32 in. wall) that are readily available at just about any hardware store work much better. I also replaced the breather valve assembly on this drip torch.

This brings up a more general point about the importance of maintaining burn equipment. At the beginning of the burn season we should:

  • Check to make sure all 5-gallon backpack pumps are functioning properly
    • Check to make sure gasket is intact and installed in top lid
    • Inspect pump cylinder for cracks
    • Inspect nozzle and make sure it is clear of debris
    • Install paper clip used to clear nozzle obstructions
    • Ensure nozzle is set on adapter with two holes (single hole adapter not very effective or water-efficient for extinguishing grass fires)
    • Fill each tank with water and test pump
  • Check drip torches
    • Inspect integrity of collar gasket, replace immediately if damaged
    • Inspect integrity of discharge plug O-ring, replace if damaged
    • Check for obstructions or debris that could impede flow of fuel
  • Rakes and swatters
    • Locate metal rakes and swatters
    • Check integrity of the swatters (these can melt and deteriorate making them ineffective)
    • Note any tools that need replacing
  • Kestrel
    • Locate Kestrel 3500FW and test unit/check battery
    • Locate or purchase additional (new) battery

At the end of the season:

  • 5-gallon backpack pumps
    • Ensure all water and excess moisture has been expelled from 5-gallon pumps
    • Inspect integrity of gasket on tank lid
  • Drip torch
    • If empty, use paper towel to clean interior and remove debris
    • Check integrity of collar gasket and discharge plug O-rings
  • Return rakes and swatters to G3
  • Hang Kestrel 3500FW from wooden dowel above shelf between main room and bathroom in Hjelm

recapping the 2021 burn season

Whew, the past month has been a blur. When I hopped in a car on April 21, we had not gotten a start on our ambitious burn plans. We hadn’t even stepped foot in Minnesota since the fall. Fast forward three weeks and we had completed 10 prescribed burns including 2 experimental plots and 8 remnants (listed below). These included nine burns in a rather intense period of nine days (May 4 to May 12)!

Experimental plots: p8 & p10

Remnants: eri (north), yoh (east), yoh (west), kjs, lc (east), sap, lf (east), & dog

Huge thanks to all the volunteers who came out to help with prescribed burns this spring! We could not have completed such as safe and successful 2021 burn season without you. And thank you to all the landowners who gave us permission to conduct prescribed burns. We are grateful to have such wonderful, supportive neighbors and we look forward to continuing to work with you!

Prescribed burns are an important part of our research. Fire is the most effective and efficient way to maintain our experimental plots. Without periodic fire, they would be quickly overrun by shrubs and trees. We are also eager to investigate how fire affects prairie plant reproduction and population growth. Burning is a necessary first step for these projects! But a fringe benefit that excites me is returning fire to the landscape starved for fire. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a pyromaniac. I am mesmerized by the sight of flames dancing across the ground, the distinctive pops and crackles given off my warm season grasses engulfed in flames, the warmth emanating from the fiery spectacle, and the lingering smell of smoke but this isn’t why I burn. I burn because fire is as much a part of prairie as rain, sunlight, soil, and wind.

Before the early 1900s, fire was ubiquitous. Lightning strikes generate an immense amount of energy and heat which undoubted ignited fires in dry prairie grasses that raced across the contiguous expanse of North American prairie. Moreover, for millennia Native Americans adeptly used fire to manage the landscape. Fire was used to reduce fuel loads and the risk of catastrophic wildfire, improve forage to game animals, clear land for crops, and undoubtedly many other reasons. Estimates of fire frequency in tallgrass prairie pre-1850 suggest any given location burned every 1-5 years. Even after Euro-American settlement, fire was common. Landowners often burned ditches to prevent woody plants from establishing and burned pasture to improve forage for livestock. Bottom line: in the post-glacial history of western Minnesota, the widespread absence of fire for the past 70+ years is abnormal.

Prairies need fire. Without fire, we risk losing the incredible diversity of prairie plants sheltering in remnants scattered across the landscape. We risk losing the diverse pollinators and insect herbivores that depend on those prairie plants. as well as their predators (other insects and arthropods, birds, reptiles, small mammals, etc.) and so on. We risk losing Minnesota’s rich prairie heritage. The challenge is safely returning fire to the landscape, understanding the differences and tradeoffs of burning small prairie remnants rather than large expanses of prairie, and making recommendations about burning based on sound science. Sounds like a job for Team Echinacea 2021!

burning p10 (West Central Area High School)

North winds and dry conditions persisted Monday (May 10) giving us an opportunity to conduct prescribed burns at p10, our experimental plot at West Central Area High School. In addition to being a home to 1400 coneflower plants and Amy W.’s gene flow experiment, these plots serve as an excellent educational resources for John VanKempen, high school science teacher at WCA and long-time member of Team Echinacea. John established an experiment in which each of the twelve 8 x 10 m plots is burned during spring, fall, or not at all. This will help us understand how fire affects the survival of Echinacea seedlings. John also uses these plots as a teaching resource for high school students at WCA.

Because this burn was conducted within Barrett city limits, John needed to get special permission from the mayor and fire chief. Plus members of the volunteer fire department needed to be present. So we met up with Jenny and DJ (from Barrett’s volunteer fire department) as well as TJ and Braeden (from Hoffman’s volunteer fire department). Before burning, Stuart, John, and I chatted with members of the volunteer fire department (who included several of John’s former students!). It was a great opportunity for us to learn from community members about their experiences with prescribed burns and their knowledge of prairies. For example, DJ owns a parcel of prairie just a little outside Barrett that was passed down from his father. TJ works for the DNR’s roving burn crew based in Elbow Lake. Talking with members of the fire department also gave us an opportunity to share a little more about the science behind why we conduct prescribed burns. We also shared information about the Echinacea Project’s research in west central Minnesota investigating how fire benefits native prairie plants as well as the diversity of insects, birds, and other species that call Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie home.

Oh and of course we partnered up with these local firefighters to burn 8 prairie plots! With dry fuel conditions and pretty heavy fuel in spots, we laid down wet lines and ignited a backing fire that moved slowly against the wind. In plots with primarily warm-season grasses, we secured the downwind (south) break and ignited down the east and west flanks before lighting a head fires that went screaming across the dry big bluestem. For plots with few warm season grasses and lots of brome, we chose to use exclusively backing fire in hopes of setting back the brome and achieving a consistent black across the entire plot. This technique worked well to achieve the desired result.

The final burn unit encompassed 3 adjacent experimental plots. The northernmost of these plots had dense big bluestem. We expected the fuel in this plot and gentle slope would produce quite a head fire. The plot did not disappoint. Members of local volunteer fire departments and the Echinacea Project worked together to secure the downwind fire break and blacken the downwind third of the burn unit consisting of three adjacent experimental plots. Once we had sufficient black and the east and west flanks of the unit were secured, we ignited a spectacular head fire that burned through the dense stand of big bluestem in less than a minute.

Thanks to Jenny and DJ from the Barrett volunteer fire department as well as TJ and Braeden from the Hoffman fire department for helping us conduct prescribed burns at the high school and sharing their experiences about fire and prairies in western Minnesota!

Temperature: 52 F
Relative Humidity: 24%
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind Direction: NE
Ignition time: 4:50 PM
End time: 6:12 PM
Burn Crew: Jared, Stuart, John, Jenny, DJ, TJ, Braeden

The first prescribed burn of 2021

Hi, flog!

Last week Stuart, Gretel, Jared, and I headed northward from Chicago to Minnesota to perform the first prescribed burn of the season! On our drive up we hit some snow that was almost whiteout conditions very exciting, especially for April. We arrived in Douglas County late Wednesday night and quickly bundled into our sleeping bags.

The next morning, we walked the unit/p8 and saw two bald eagles flying over the plot, we decided that this was a good omen for the burn. There are two areas in the unit that haven’t been burned in the past that we decided to burn this year, this was the island that is northeast of the plot and the “bee trees”. After examining the unit we set off to prep the unit and gather supplies. After a break for lunch, we ran a test of how the wooded area would burn by burning the island area. This burn went well, the fire moved slowly but we did kill a frog :(. Halfway through this burn Ruth and Frank arrived from the Cities, they were greeted with excitement and backpack sprayers.

After the success of burning through the woods in the island, we decided to burn through the bee trees. The bee trees burned very slowly Frank and I spend most of the burn focused on ensuring that no sparks from the bee’s trees got taken in the wind downhill. To the south of the bee trees, the burn brake is only mowed and still has quite a bit of brome that could be fuel. We were all shocked by the civilized behavior that the fire had around this burn break. Once we had a sufficient backfire Stuart light the head fire in the windward portion of the plot and boy it was spectacular. Our civilized fire politely ripped through the brome of p8 and even left many pin flags untouched!

After we were satisfied with the large p8 unit fire being out we gathered, including John VanKempen who arrived during the course of the p8 burn. We then headed down to Jean’s prairie plant garden and Jared, who was the burn boss for the final two burns, light a nice line around the perimeter of the garden, this burn only took 16 minutes. When we were waiting for the garden to burn we noticed a small adjacent patch of dried duff and we decided to burn that too! This burn went even faster than the prairie garden it was also much more powerful.

After the prairie garden and adjacent area were done burning, Stuart, Gretel, Jared and I made sure that everything was put out back at p8. We found a smoldering log and made some s’mores!

The next day, Jared and I inspected the remnant sites that we are planning on burning. Jared, Stuart, and I also broadcast some native prairie seeds (mostly two grasses: side-oats grama and little bluestem) that we collected in the fall in p8.

We performed this burn a week ago now, on Earth Day, performing a prescribed burn that aids in the restoration of the prairie was a wonderful way to celebrate. This was my first prescribed burn, overall it was really fun, impressive, exciting, and also boring. I am very excited to be heading back up to Minnesota to conduct more burns but also to see how the community changes after the burn.

Until next time,
Mia