This time of year you may see billowing plumes of smoke rising up across Iowa. Menacing blazes are seen by motorists traveling the state roads. Ditches are being burned and in some cases entire fields get burned. But, why?
Seventy-one years of Smokey the Bear have ingrained in us that fires are bad. We see their destructive power when they level a house or destroy a forest. But, throughout history fires have been an essential tool in land management.
Each spring farmers and other land managers use controlled burns (also called prescribed burns) to put nutrients back into the soil and revitalize the land. These intentionally set fires serve a valuable purpose. At the end of the growing season plants will leave a lot of dead matter above the ground where it does not easily decompose. Fire breaks down that plant matter and releases the nutrients so they are available to the soil and can help promote future plant growth. These prescribed burns are often applied to road side ditches where dead plant matter can build up quickly.
Fires can also help seed new plants. Many seeds have a thick outer shell that needs to be broken before the seed will start to germinate. Fire can break this shell and then the seed ends up laying in a nutrient rich bed to start growing. Healthy soil is the primary goal of using fire as a tool. Secondary goals of prescribed burn include brush and weed control. Fires can even help control ticks and parasitic worms that might infect livestock that graze on the land.
Native Americans also used prescribed burns to manage grasslands long before we started farming in Iowa. Native Americans saw the improved plant growth after a fire and how the animals they hunted gravitated to this new growth. They used fire to manage the grasslands and ensure the herd health of the animals they hunted.
Farmers Take Great Care
Prescribed burns or controlled burns are effective because they are controlled. Land managers set fires in the spring when the ground is still wet and there is high humidity. This makes the fire easy to control and direct. It is also important to pick a day with very little wind. Too much wind can make the fire large and uncontrollable.
Land owners doing prescribed burns are careful to never leave them unattended. They carefully monitor the fire in progress. They often work with the local fire department to ensure the fire stays under control. And of course they are sure to obtain the appropriate permissions and permits necessary to do prescribed burns.