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Fire is one of the most destructive forces that can wreak havoc on our communities. Forest fires and house fires threaten tenants, destroy sentimental belongings, and ruin everything in their wake. Although we typically view large fires as unruly and harmful beasts, there is one case in which fire actually rejuvenates the environment: prairie burning. Writing is complicated enough without worrying about style, tone, and how it appears to other people. Writing is a creative process that is collaborative; it’s telling a story and having the trust to imagine your story with the person who happens to be reading it right now, whether it’s your mother, your best friend, or complete stranger on the bus.
I experienced my first prairie burning as a confused first grader who had just finished lunch (trading the healthy stuff away in exchange for potato chips) and wasn’t allowed to go into the field during recess. As we were all herded outside for recess by chaperones with bullhorns, I ran to keep up with my friends, but then noticed that the field behind the playground was on fire. A big fire. Alarmed, I noticed that none of the adults seemed to be doing anything about it, and that seemed odd to my seven-year-old self. I approached one of the playground chaperones and told her the field was on fire – as if she somehow didn’t already see it. She told me they were burning the prairie, that they do it every year, and not to go near it. She put extra emphasis on that third point, but I was more interested in the first two. Sitting on the swings a few minutes later, I watched the smoke rise from the tall grasses, still very confused.
Over the years, I witnessed seasonal prairie burns and gradually learned that the burns were counter-intuitively conducted in order to maintain the prairie behind the school.The Midwest is filled with prairies, and each year these prairies must be carefully maintained to keep them safe and healthy. Oddly, burning them down is an effective way to keep prairies healthy in the long term. Each spring and each fall, a certified team of Burn Managers checks the weather for precise conditions and ignites a contained and highly-controlled fire in Midwestern prairies. The goals of lighting these fires are to restore nutrients to the soil by removing them from dead organic matter, to prevent invasive species from out-competing native prairie plants, to remove dry lingering “tinderbox” plant matter, and to maintain a grassy environment where woody trees would otherwise takeover. (Source: www.illinoisscience.org)