JOHNSTOWN, Neb. — Red cedars exploded into blazing torches.
Flames washed over waves of little bluestem, turning the prairie's grass carpet black.
Billowing plumes of white, black and gray smoke obscured the sun.
By nightfall, a ribbon of fire six miles long glowed on ridges above the Niobrara River, where devastating wildfires torched more than 76,000 acres of rangeland and timbered canyons and destroyed dwellings over 10 days last July.
But this was good fire.
Less than a year after one of the nation's most devastating fire years and the worst wildfire season in Nebraska history — which saw a whopping 1,286 percent year-to-year increase in the number of acres burned — wildland firefighters and others gathered to train for another hot and smoky summer.
Their landscape laboratory was the Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve east of Valentine. The 60,000-acre site — about 150 square miles — provides prairie where fire can be used as a training and land management tool on a rare scale.
Crews from as near as Iowa and as far away as California set a series of prescribed fires, also called controlled burns, on 4,200 acres. They purposely torched grassland to help reduce harmful and flammable vegetation that encroaches on native woodlands and prairie grazed by cattle and bison — and to lessen the potential for future catastrophic fires.
Jeremy Bailey of Salt Lake City was the burn boss. He is an associate director of the Nature Conservancy's Fire Learning Network and an authority on how to safely use controlled burns to bring landscapes back to health and reduce the risk of megafires.
He understands that many are concerned about fire moving across the landscape.
“The difference is that we're trying to provide good fire in a controlled way,'' he said. “You can't live without fire. It always arrives. But we have a choice. We plan and we use controlled burns to select the time and place to use fire, rather than a random event that isn't so manageable. People are safer. Property is protected. Plants and animals are protected.''
Bailey led 65 professionals, local private landowners and college students in two weeks of wildland fire training at the northern Nebraska grassland preserve. It was Bailey's fourth consecutive year leading workshops in Nebraska.
The conservancy has used prescribed fire on the preserve since 1985. The initiatives paid off during last summer's wildfire along the Niobrara. Previous controlled burns adjacent to the preserve's headquarters slowed the 2012 fire's growth, allowing firefighters to protect and save the ranch's buildings and corrals. Still, more than 29,800 acres of Nature Conservancy land burned. Damage included 50 miles of fencing.
Sporadic snows and rains dampened Bailey's plans this year, but crews took advantage of two dry, calm days last week to burn land along the south bank of the Niobrara, from near Smith Falls State Park downstream to the Rocky Ford area.
Crews one day walked 15 miles, lighting fires and holding control lines along three parcels of a stretch of upland prairie, tree-choked canyons and river bottomland known as the preserve's Seven Springs tract.
Trainees carrying torches fueled with diesel and gasoline dripped droplets of fire on prairie grass abutting ranch trails that functioned as fire breaks. Flames created a wide burned zone along the rim of sprawling acres of grass and dry timber slated for burning. The torch handlers followed colleagues who sprayed water on the edge of the prairie grass. Southeast breezes pushed the flames into the target areas.
The fires were extensively planned and mapped beforehand.
“What we would not want to happen is to have a head fire running at a control line that has not been reinforced with black,” Bailey said of pre-burned land.
As flames crept across the prairie and into hills and canyons above the river, crew members with large swatters smothered lingering flames along the control line. Others with shovels and rake-hoe tools picked apart debris. A water truck brought up the rear.
The Nature Conservancy schedules the training during colleges' spring break to give students experience with prescribed fires. Students from Idaho, New Mexico Highland and the University of California, Berkeley attended the first week. Colorado State and Northern Arizona students worked the second, along with firefighters and resource managers from Boulder, Colo., Chico, Calif., and Pottawattamie County, Iowa.
In addition to the Nature Conservancy property, crews burned some of Pine Glen Wildlife Management Area near Long Pine.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association, the preserve and the Fire Learning Network hosted the training. The Fire Learning Network is a partnership among the U.S. Forest Service, the Interior Department and the Nature Conservancy. The program gives trainees a concentrated dose of prescribed fire experience and exposure to new people, places and techniques.
Peter Folé, a Northern Arizona University forestry professor, said his students benefited.
“They'll be dealing with fires and climate change,” he said. “Nebraska has relatively gentle topography, but in many ways it's similar to Arizona. We have similar grassland and woodland balances, with the cedar invasion and the role of fire in killing that. It's really good experience for us.”
Federal officials forecast significant wildland fire potential in areas of the Great Plains, Southeast and West through June. Severe and exceptional drought has plagued the Plains region for more than year, but fire season isn't expected arrive earlier than normal, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
Bailey plans to lead a similar workshop on prescribed burns in western Iowa's Loess Hills next month.
“On the Great Plains we need to be burning millions of acres every year,'' he said. “In the Rocky Mountains, we need millions of acres of good fire.''
Most prairies and forests have fire-adapted ecosystems, Bailey said.
“The plants and animals need fire to thrive,'' he said. “In the absence of fire, they become overstocked, decadent and unhealthy — and they become loaded with fuel, which generates fires like we saw here in the valley last year.”
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