Monday, April 10, 2017

Prairie Rebirth

   Much has been reported about the record Starbuck Wildfire that hit the Red Hills of Kansas on March 6. That day and the week that followed was a disastrous period for several wild fires in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Many people lost their homes, livestock, and some human lives. It's hard to not overstate the devastation this catastrophe brought to the affected areas. Losses are still being evaluated. While it's not hard to count lives, homes, livestock and miles of fences lost, it's more difficult to assess impacts on nature. The prairie does not suffer much from this event. After all, prairies evolved with fire so enjoy overall benefits in the long run. But, there are some immediate casualties. These include direct mortality of large and small animals as well as some desired trees. Losses of cedar trees which have encroached on the riparian zones as well as uplands of some of the area affected are generally not mourned. Windbreaks made up of cedar rows were lost and this is certainly regretted. But, the death of some of the large lowland hardwoods is very unfortunate. The most notable of these losses include the Kansas state (and world for that matter) record Little (Texas) Walnut tree in northern Clark County. This is the third state/world record of this species lost over the last year due to this fire and the Anderson Creek Wildfire of 2016. But the land and its people will recover. This post follows some of the initial recovery of nature from this natural event. 

Western Wheatgrass exemplifies the natural progression of cool season grasses and
              later, the warm season species in the barren-looking uplands. But, those are coming             on thanks to some timely and life sustaining rains and are showing some green in a scorched landscape.

Bases of yucca plants, resilient to fire events, stand out like sedent sentries to
the backdrop of Clark State Fishing Lake.

Up to six inches of rain have blessed Clark County after the
horrendous wild fire that swept the land. It gave life back to
a parched country and replenished Clark State Fishing Lake 
as shown by a quite active spillway.

Prairie and fire are natural friends. The regrowth has begun
with marked indifference to other destruction to humans, livestock,
and man-made things.

Fire, whether from prescribed burns or a wild fire such as this one,
can provide some control of undesirable plants such as Prickly
Pear cacti. There are some good things realized for rangeland
as a result of such a horrible wild fire event.

Some old abandoned farm houses were destroyed with little significant
loss realized. Others were so much more unfortunate.

Some life is reappearing. Most reptiles had not emerged from
winter hibernation yet at the time of the fire. But some, such as
this Prairie Lizard, came out under less-than-ideal reptilian
conditions, finding little to eat.

Blooming of this Wild Violet reminds us of rebirth
and beauty following disaster in a blackened landscape.

While many desired hardwood trees died in this event, streams gain
water and grasses rejoice.

A heart-breaking loss from this wild fire was the
state/world record Little (Texas) Walnut tree.
In a land of many current contrasts, this
loss particularly stands out.

     It's a hard reality for so many residents of the Red Hills to have experienced so much grief in this horrendous wild fire. We work so hard to encourage prescribed burns to enhance rangeland for cattle and wildlife. But this fire was so contrary to sound management. The Anderson Creek Wildfire from 2016 burned through a lot of cedar-infested hills and did a lot to eventually help reclaim the land to better overall productivity. But the Starbuck Wildfire was essentially a grass fire and a solemn testament that sometimes, nature simply holds the upper hand. Few would have thought that a "grass fire" could have caused so much destruction. But the unfortunate combination of very low humidity, very high winds, a healthy fuel load from a couple of years of decent precipitation and an accidental ignition reminds us of the ultimate reality of some traumatic natural events.