Sunday, March 29, 2015

Burning for Water

     Fire is an important aspect of prairie maintenance.  In this demonstration of a prescribed burn in Barber County, not only is the prairie rejuvenated, but a stream's flow is reclaimed. Eastern red cedar is a huge problem in the Red Hills as well as in many other parts of the Great Plains.  They not only take up valuable range land which could otherwise be excellent forage for cattle production and prairie wildlife species, they consume a large amount of water.  As per information out of Oklahoma, a 20 foot cedar tree can use as much as 30 gallons of water per day.  Multiply that by hundreds and perhaps thousands of similar cedars in a small watershed, and the impact on the local aquifer can dry up small streams.  This is a story of a stream recovery which literally has happened overnight because of the valuable application of  a prescribed burn.

This is the classic application of a backfire for the purpose of creating more
black (or safe fireguard) space on the downwind side of this prescribed burn.
The field on the right is not intended to be burned until later.

The backfire creeps into some cedars in a canyon
and the resulting inferno engulfs some large cedar trees.  Black smoke like this on the prairie is good news
for this grassland.
Keith is stringing the head fire on the upwind 
side of the prescribed burn.  Two spray units follow 
to ensure no fire creeps backwards into the fireguard 
and field on the left.

Streamflow reappears in the "Sherwood Forest"
stream almost immediately following the burn.

Cedars use a tremendous amount of water.  Once 
dead or gone from this landscape, water starts flowing 
again in the small stream in "Sherwood Forest"  on
the Alexander Ranch in Barber County.  The Alexanders 
had actually been working and planning for this particular burn for at least three years but intensified preparation 
during the past year.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Barn Bats at the Bottoms

     There's a new apartment in the old barn at the TNC Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve.  It's reserved for bats.  Staff from The Nature Conservancy recently "remodeled" a room in the old structure in hopes of attracting bats.  Ken Brunson, Red Hills Project Coordinator, and Rob Penner, Manager of the Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve, collaborated in sealing off an interior room leaving a small entrance for access by these flying mammals.  While an occasional bat would use the structure for roosting, this construction project was designed to make an attractive room for a possible maternity colony of Cave Myotis, Myotis velifer.  The barn is several miles north of a latitude known to harbor the furthest northern recorded maternity colony for this species.   So in a way, this is a pro-active move to perhaps accommodate the species if it follows a northward trend as indicated by other animals, perhaps in response to known changing climatic conditions.             The idea comes from observations of this species along with a few others utilizing interior graineries of old barns for winter hibernacula (winter roosts) as well as for birthing areas for females.  Fairly common in the Red Hills, this species is found in caves as well as old houses and barns.  The problem with this particular room, though, was that it was too open.  So with a small amount of materials and effort, we made a bat condo--hopefully.
The big barn is a landmark at the Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve.  While providing habitat for barn owls,
wood rats, raccoons, opossums, barn swallows and a
number of other small animals, it offers enough space to hopefully include a summer colony of Cave Myotis bats.

Armed with a generator, pressed wallboard,
and assorted hand tools, the bat men went to work.
Although the "bat room" was on an outside wall,
hopes are that insulating the outside wall will help
with appropriate thermal regulation to attract
female Myotis bats.

Rob puts finishing touches on the
human entry door to the "bat room."  

As observed in a similar barn further to the
south, we hope to see this sight in our bat condo
in the future.  Cave Myotis migrate to summer
maternity colonies in mid-April so if we are really
lucky, perhaps we'll see some bats finding this
special place soon.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Anatomy of a Prescribed Burn

     Prescribed burn season is fast approaching.  A relatively early burn in the Red Hills started things off.  The "Barby" burn was planned early in order to beat the green up of some cool season grasses to improve the effectiveness of the fire.  A main goal was to try to finish killing as much of the salt cedar in the bottom land as possible.  Improvement in the warm season grasses  and available forage for cattle is expected and it will improve conditions for wildlife.  The images take you through the process of a prescribed burn.

Keith (in the burgundy shirt in the middle) is the Fire Boss and goes over the burn plan assigning everyone their respective duties.
Everyone fills their sprayer tanks and goes over last minute plans and conditions.

Brian tests the drone which will be handy in observing the burn from up high.

The first ignition is a test fire.  If the fire behaves as expected, the burn begins.  The landowner, Bill Barby in the black cowboy hat, strikes the first match.

The backburn is ignited on the downwind side.  Plenty of water sprayers are available to make sure the fire stays on the right side of the fire break.  

Once a sufficient amount of black from the backburn is allowed, the headfire is ignited from the upwind side.  You can see the adequately mowed fire guard  and the water trucks laying down a wetline so that the fire goes with the wind and doesn't creep backwards.  Jess is using a drip torch to string the head fire.

As the other igniter, Ted gives some instructions.
Sometimes, old pieces of equipment can be a hazard with vehicles trying to maneuver around smoky ground.  However, this picturesque old drill sits on the edge of the field and out of the way.

The fire roars through salt cedar (Tamarisk) in the river bottomland.

The cows all came over to see what the heck was going on.  

Postscript:   The Result

 The resulting fire may look ugly but come back in another 6-8 weeks and see how lush the undergrowth is.  And hopefully, some or many of the Salt Cedar and some Eastern Red Cedar will be gonners!  And the work isn't done yet.  The area is patrolled for a day or more to make sure any breakouts or restarts can be extinguished as needed.                                                                                                                                                            Photo by Bill Barby.