- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2016

CEDAR POINT, Kan. (AP) - Prairie burning - a Flint Hills tradition that dates back to Native American land management practices - requires a perfect balance of courage and caution. Above all, it requires experience.

Under the right circumstances, however, there’s plenty of room for amateur participation.

An annual event at the Flying W Ranch in Cedar Point, a tiny town about 70 miles south of Manhattan, provides just that opportunity. This year’s event took place last weekend and saw 200 participants, some of whom came from as far away as Minnesota.

The cost to participate was $110, which covers a full day of traditional ranching activities from barbeque dinner to bluegrass music to prairie burning. A daytime burn took place in the afternoon followed by a night burn after dark.

The Manhattan Mercury (https://bit.ly/1UTM74A ) reports that Josh and Gwen Hoy, owners of the Flying W, have built a career around hosting guests on their working cattle ranch, which has grown over the past 10 years into a tourist destination. Despite the influx of visitors, ranch operations have remained as close to authentic as possible.



The Hoys, accompanied by their daughter Josie and several other experienced helpers, were riding around on horseback during last weekend’s burns making sure everything unfolded according to plan.

They laid out some ground rules before the first burn.

“The fire is hot,” Josh told participants. “Respect the fire. You’re only safe if you’re in black or green, so don’t stay in the brown grass.

“The main rule is if one of us on horseback tells you to do something, don’t argue, don’t ask questions, just do what we ask you to,” he said. “It’s been really dry this year, so the fire is going to have a lot more intensity.”

Then he cantered off toward the burn site followed by the event’s 200 participants, most of whom had come prepared with at least two essential items: a box of matches and a camera.

They distributed themselves along the edges of the burn site, matches in hand.

Once a test match had been dropped to determine the wind direction, Gwen gave the go ahead. “Light her up, guys,” she said. “Just be careful of the people beside you.”

Roughly 10 seconds later, the field was on fire.

After another 10 minutes, it was ash.

Dry grass and breezy conditions caused the flames to grow and spread more quickly than usual, but luckily they didn’t have too far to go.

The area designated for the burn was surrounded on two sides by a path about 10 feet wide of already burned grass and on the other two sides by a creek. Since the fire couldn’t spread beyond those boundaries, it died out nearly as fast as it grew.

Initially covered in ash, the field will soon turn from black to green. Burning typically results in around 30 percent more growth during the following growing season.

Speaking during the event, Brian Obermeyer, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Flint Hills Initiative, said the practice is essential to preserving what’s left of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

The ecosystem has been reduced to roughly 4 percent the size it once was, from almost 200 million acres to 10,000. About two-thirds of those 10,000 acres are located in the Flint Hills.

“It’s not the most endangered ecosystem (in North America),” Obermeyer said. “But as far as an ecosystem that has been so greatly diminished, there’s none other that equals that.”

Prairie burning prevents grasslands from eventually turning into forests, in addition to reducing the risk of wildfires in the long term. Indians originally started burning because the resulting greener pastures would attract buffalo herds.

Obermeyer said the Flint Hills are alive and well thanks in large part to yearly burns, which maintain a relatively treeless landscape. Around 26 percent of the Flint Hills is burned annually.

“Some of the other folks I work with at the Nature Conservancy, they’re jealous as heck because I’m in a landscape where there’s this fire culture, it’s in the DNA. People aren’t afraid of fire,” he said. “In other landscapes where they’re trying to reintroduce fire to that landscape. the landowners, the ranchers, they’re not comfortable lighting fire.

“They’re afraid of it,” he said. “So thank goodness that we do have this fire culture.”

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Information from: The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, https://www.themercury.com

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