PAXICO — Listening with eyes shut, the flames engulfing the prairie oddly sound like heavy rain on a roof — with a few crackles here and there, of course.
Kansas Department of Wildlife Public Lands manager Nathan Henry and his crew brought The Mercury along Tuesday morning for a controlled burn of the Bolton Wildlife Area near Paxico — roughly eight miles southeast of Wamego.
Henry’s gang burned 200 acres in just a few hours. The entire reserve is 650 acres.
“For eons it’s been grassland… there’s been wildfires,” Henry said in his truck while heading for a safe spot to witness the burn. “The Native Americans set fires and it’s kept it grass. And we have to keep that up, otherwise it’s just going to turn into trees and forest.
“It’s happened east of the Mississippi. It used to be grassland there and now it’s all gone.
“It starts with shrubs, then it moves into trees and after it’s gone to trees to far you’ve lost the native grass.”
The Bolton Wildlife Area, named after the family that donated the land to the state, houses the Greater Prairie Chicken, doves and other wildlife.
It’s an area also leased to local ranchers for cattle grazing.
One swatch of grassland was not burned because Henry wanted to keep tall grass available for the prairie chickens to nest.
Henry said these praire chickens aren’t the ones in the current federal protection debate.
Those are the “Lesser” Prairie Chickens that populate western Kansas.
Henry said the differences are small between the two, and include variations in size and color.
For the burn, Henry’s crew was armed with multiple four-wheelers and a couple of John Deere Gator vehicles, all complete with water tanks and hoses to keep the fire in control.
Before the burn, Henry mowed the border of the pasture he wanted to burn to keep it contained. The mowed grass was short and green — unlike the taller yellow grass soon to be flattened and blackened by a battalion of flames.
It took a little longer than Henry expected for the fire to get going.
He and his crew had to plan for what the wind would do and prepare for how it would react inside the valleys of the pasture – but once it got crackling, it didn’t take long for the job to be complete.
Henry’s people were spread out on their ATV’s around the pasture, and it didn’t take long for both fire lines to meet.
Just like that, the burn was finished.
“It went pretty smooth,” said Henry, who is in his third year with the department of wildlife after graduating from Kansas State with a degree in wildlife biology.
“We had to adjust to some east and west winds, but it went pretty smooth.”