March 15, 2015
THE KANSAS FLINT HILLS BURN
Each Spring the Kansas Flint Hills ranchers perform an age old ritual known as the prairie grass burn. Ironically, it is done to enrich the land with new grass for grazing purposes. If not for the near annual burns it is said that the prairies would be as grown as the Ozarks.
There is a bit of science to today's burns. Rainfall, humidity and current wind speed and direction are some of the factors that go into the burn / no burn decision. Prior to a burn, control burns are set to stop the main burn at designated locations and/or property lines. But when the main area is ready to be lit, it is cowboys up in the saddle with a rope tow of sage brush or anything that can be lit and drug through the grass by a rider.
Our afternoon started out with a safety discussion, knowing where you are in relation to the fire and where to go if you get cornered. For most of the day burn we were at the fires edge photographing the meandering fire line. As we took a break for a cowboy dinner I commented to one of the workshop instructors that I'll bet he knows the picture I'll be posting on my website this week. He responded, "I'll bet you haven't taken it yet". He was right.
For the evening burn they settled on an area that I can best describe as three sided hollow. We were at the bottom (downwind) -- with our 'get out of Dodge' route directly behind us. The riders lit their fire tow and took off into the night up both sides and then across the top of the ridge. Part of me just stared in awe of the beauty and another part of me was angling for a shot to capture a part of Kansas history. There were muffled f stop, shutter speed and ISO setting conversations as the instructors answered these and other questions on framing the image. What happened next was awe inspiring. We started to notice small whirl winds in the fire that would come and go. But one took hold and slowly danced down the upper left side of the hill. The flames swirled up several hundred feet with the accompanying roar of the twisting winds. We didn't know whether to snap stills or video or just watch (between the entire group we did all three). It was absolutely awesome. As quickly as the firenado sprang up it was gone.
For me, what best captured the days event, was the silouette of the cowboys keeping an eye on the fire at the top of the hill.