Annual Flames in the Flint Hills on the tall grass prairie near Clements, KS. Photo: Ryan Donnell
...fire sits at the heart of spring’s annual Flames in the Flint Hills festival (April 2 this year) that lets a few hundred greenhorns spend a day on the ranch taking guided horseback rides, dining on food made with (extremely) locally raised ingredients, learning about prairie ecology, listening to local musicians fiddle and oh-so-carefully setting the hills on fire.
Writer Amada Glazebrook brings beautiful prose to life in her article for Midwest Living about an annual event that brings together the concepts behind Fire Adapted Communities and Resilient Landscapes.
The intoxicating and beautiful power of a burning prairie isn’t just tolerated; it’s encouraged.
All photos in collage: Ryan Donnell.
Wind back the calendar 150 years, Brian Obermeyer, landscape programs manager with The Nature Conservancy, tells festivalgoers, to when the tallgrass prairie stretched from Canada to Texas. “Lightning would have started a lot of wildfires, and there wasn’t anything to stop them, so the prairie just naturally would have burned. Maybe not all of it, every year, but enough.” The fires killed invasive species, kept trees at bay and encouraged native grasses to set seed. From the scorched ground grew tender grass shoots; herds of hungry bison followed. “There’s evidence that Native Americans knew how important fire was as a tool,” Brian says. “They intentionally burned the prairie to draw bison to graze.”
Today, replace bison with cattle, and the scene is the same. Ranchers have been burning the prairie for generations. “The nutrients in the grasses go back to the soil,” says veteran Flint Hills rancher Jim Hoy. “All we need after a burn is rain. Come back in a week, and the ground will be green.”