After the Flames

Crimson and yellow tongues lick the tall grass, dancing and flaring up the long stems, then devouring the crumbles as the grass collapses, a tube of ash that shatters, returning to the dust. The flames race on, driven by the wind, nibbling around tree trunks, turning bunch grasses into smoking lumps surrounded by strips and twists of ash-colored bare ground. Young mesquite and cedar trees turn into burning bushes, and a gust of wind lifts a burning cow pie, turning it into a hellish Frisbee that sails over the fire line, dropping to roll on edge, scattering the fire even farther.

Recycling the tall grass of Texas. Photo by Frank Heinz at nbcdfw.com

Recycling the tall grass of Texas. Photo by Frank Heinz at nbcdfw.com

Tallgrass, the six-foot tall tawny, waving wall of big bluestem and Indian grass, ignites with a whoosh, flames dancing among the long stems, burning them down to reveal the scenery beyond and soil below. Short grass burns lower but just as fast, flames racing over 60 miles an hour if the wind cooperates. Black, smoking ground remains behind the flames, while the wind snatches up the white and grey ash, spinning them into dust devils and coating everything around with stinging white that leaves black tracks behind. A few yucca stubs smoke for days afterward, sullenly refusing to give up their red ember hearts. 

Those who can flee the flames. Deer, cattle, coyotes all take to their feet, running as best they can, while snakes and birds scatter. Some will not escape, instead returning their nitrogen and carbon to the soil from whence they sprang. Others reach safety, huddling in the center of playa lakes or slithering across streams, ducking into holes below or soaring above the flame’s reach.

The sun rises on a black land, lifeless and barren. But wait. Only wait, and when rain comes, life follows. Three weeks after a burn and rain, the ground is more green than black. Two months with rain and green velvet covers the land, so smooth and soft you want to stop the car, get out, and stroke the new life. Deep buried roots allow the grasses to hide, while the flames consume the old, dead thatch and tree-seedlings. Fire returns the prairie and plains to the grasses. New shoots explode from the fertilized earth, drinking up the sunlight and growing as fast as they can. Wildflowers appear, fireweed and gallardia, nightshade and winecups add color to the greenth.

Fire is a key to plains life. The tall grass prairies need fire. They are pyrophilic, meaning that periodic burns increase their vigor and help preserve species richness. Without occasional burns, first sumac, then trees begin moving in, converting the grassy prairie into upland forest. The shortgrass steppe does not lean as heavily on fire, but flames still benefit the grasses, cleaning out the dead material and refreshing the soil, controlling brush and invasive plants. Humans have been managing the tall grass prairies with fire for centuries, if not longer, and burned the steppe as well, although not as often.

Fire is not an unalloyed good, however. It turns homes to ash, causes wrecks, and kills those who try to outrun it. Even so, it is part of the plains world, valuable when used correctly, feared when let loose by a storm or a careless hand.

Grass burns sweet. There’s a special richness to a grass fire’s smoke, a fatty, cinnamon-laced sweetness, the incense of the North American plains. Once smelled it’s forever familiar, and one quick sniff tells of the direction and composition of the fire.

Anglo-Americans have a love-hate relationship with grass fires. We watch them dance, admiring their beauty, and value how they improve the range. A grassfire at night is sublime: so beautiful that it becomes terrifying, crimson dancing in the black. But fire destroys property and even lives, and if the rains do not come, the blackened landscape seems to chastise, erasing hopes for a better season. Dead and dry, inedible, irritating eyes and throat, haunting those who failed to stop the flames.

Ah, but once the rains come! Fire and water generate life, the plush green of the fourth day of Creation, when it was all good. Life returns richer than before, strong and vigorous, so long as the rains remain. Fire and water, earth and air, renewed and once more ready to support life in abundance.

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