Since the arrival of early pioneers dreaming of a better life, much of the native characteristics of Texas land has changed. Upon arrival, great prairies covered the terrain. Tall grasses and wildflowers danced, waving in the sunshine and wind while many species of birds and animals depended upon the grasslands for food and shelter. These once massive prairies are an extension of the Great Plains reaching across America's heartland into Canada. Urbanization and Industry have changed the landscape. Only pockets of true native prairies remain. One such place is located in a suburban neighborhood about an hour east of Houston in Liberty county, Marysee Prairie Preserve.
The nine-acre parcel is now a rare coastal tall grass prairie with native species of little and big bluestem, Indian grass, giant coneflower, gayfeather, dewberry and rose brambles surrounded by either loblolly pine woods or residential homes. The protected preserve is currently co-owned by the Texas Land Conservancy and the Big Thicket Natural Heritage Trust. Both organizations recruit volunteers to help maintain the native grasses and flowers by removing the invasive woody species. Once a year during winter when the plumes have dried on the gorgeous autumn grasses, the prairie is set ablaze.
In nature fire happens. In developed areas, fires are suppressed for safety to the occupying residents. When fires are prevented, invasive species take over changing the landscape. In a protected area like Marysee Prairie, a controlled fire is set to the area to eradicate plant species, like yaupon, from overtaking the terrain. The 'prescribed burn' was set for the first weekend in February and volunteers were needed. Light rain showers covered most of the Houston area on Saturday and the call 'to burn' was set for Sunday. Early in the morning Cody, my brother Chris, our friend Paul (a professional photographer), and I packed our equipment and headed east into the rising sun.
Morning on the Prairie
Caution is the most important tool in burning a prairie once conditions are right. Our leader for the burn was Daniel Dietz, Stewardship Director for the Texas Land Conservancy. He has worked on many wild land fires over the years. Daniel was continually aware of the weather, particularly the wind and humidity. Since residences bordered the area, the first task was for the volunteers to rake any dry debris or vegetation from around the perimeter to create a fire break.
Fire break lines before the leaves were removed. The outer perimeter was mowed by a local resident.
After the perimeter was secure, the wind direction and speed were observed. A wind from the southwest at 10-12 knots was ideal as the northeast corner of the prairie was uninhabited thus; smoke and threat of fire were diminished for the neighbors. Luckily, the wind was blowing the optimal direction but very lightly with intermittent periods of calm or a "low rate of fire ability" according to Daniel Dietz. The group of volunteers waited and enjoyed lunch provided by local conservationist Maxine Johnston who has actively helped to restore the prairie since the seventies. The Prairie was dedicated in her honor on June 4, 2005.
After lunch, we received fire safety training: pay attention, communicate, and watch for your fellow volunteers. Daniel urged the importance of escape routes, "the safety zone is the road and stay on fire lines." Everyone was given a specific job. Flappers used a tool to tamp any stray coals or embers. Water packs were carried by the strong and the fuel torch was given to a few brave souls. I was chosen, not by my choice. The winds picked up and we were ready. Before setting the prairie ablaze, Daniel notified the local fire department. Next, we split into 2 fire crews or "control units," both beginning on the far side of the field downwind. Each crew had a captain and a walkie-talkie for communication. The goal was to create a burned edge along the fire break.
Cody carrying 45 pounds of water.
The torch spits fuel and fire on the dry grasses.
Creating a fire break on the downwind side. The fire burns slow, then smolders.
Along the North and East sides, the fire moved slowly. It was somewhat boring, almost tedious. And then...as we rounded the southeast corner a loud crackling roar came from across the field. The wind charmed the flames to leap high into the air, heat and smoke filling the void. In less than 10 minutes the entire prairie caught fire and burned to the ground. It happened so fast, I didn't realize until moments later when only black Earth and a smoky haze suffused the space.
Finally Catching Fire. You can see a slight smile of satisfaction on our leader, Daniel Dietz.
Flames burning down the prairie.
The fire finished in minutes, my brother Chris and I standing in the burned prairie. Photo by Paul Davis
The day was growing late and it was time to head home. A few volunteers remained to spot burn the more stubborn woody species and emerging trees. We were each given a warm embrace from Maxine Johnston for helping support "the last and only native protected prairie in the Big Thicket region."
Maxine Johnston and I just before the prairie burn. Photo by Paul Davis
*Introductory photograph by Paul Davis. If you are interested in Paul Davis photography please visit his website at paulrdavisphoto.com or contact him by email firstname.lastname@example.org