Prairie Fire Season

“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne


It’s time.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.

Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.

Pasture Rose (Rosa Carolina) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.

Feather, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.

Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.

Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.

Upright Carrion Flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Late figwort disappears into the inferno.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) Shadow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire is usually something we fear.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.


Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.


Join Cindy for an online class! See for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

15 responses to “Prairie Fire Season

  1. Beautiful photos! I’m so disappointed to have missed the burn…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeanne iovinelli

    Yay!! So exciting! 🌱🐛🐝

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeanne — at last, right? So good for the prairie! We’ll have our work cut out for us this season with the brush, but won’t it be wonderful to have this clean-up for the 2021 season? Grateful for all you do to share prairie with others! See you soon! Cindy 🙂


  3. I happened to get lucky and be there. What a fantastic job everyone did!!! What a perfect day for the burn, too. Looking forward to seeing the greens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you were there! It was a great job by the crew, and as you said, the perfect day (just in time for a string of wet days ahead!) Thanks for reading, and for dropping me a note, Mike!
      Cindy 🙂


  4. Susan and I spent 4 hours at the burn yesterday. Were you one of the volunteers? Serms like it since you got some close shots.

    I took my photos at 1/125 sevonds, f8 and ISO 200. Wjat settings did you use. Your images look grest.

    Joe Lunn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Joe — I’m so glad you and Susan were there! Yay! I am a steward for the prairie, but was not participating on the fire crew — just photographing for the blog. Thanks for the kind compliments! Some of my photos are cell phone photos (iphone7) and others are my Panasonic Lumix. I’m not as fancy as you are! I bet you have some wonderful images. So glad you dropped me a note, and thanks for your love of prairie — and for reading the blog.
      Cindy 🙂


      • Yes we love the prairie! We donated a significant amount of of money to the Arboretum this year and dedicated it to the prairie. We will continue to do this. Joe will send you photos of the burn.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad the Schulenberg prairie was burned. Today, I took a walk at a nature center owned by the city where I reside. Nothing has been burned. Burning was not done frequently enough even before COVID, and this season nothing was burned at all.

    Buckthorn, bush honeysuckle, and mesic trees are invading. I’ve marked these plants, but the staff spends little time on applying herbicide. The city won’t let me apply herbicide. The situation will be even worse now since much of the staff was laid off last year.

    One of the native plant gardens I tended behind the visitor center was smothered with topsoil during construction. Other gardens have been driven over by construction equipment or had fill or gravel dumped on them. A new planting, I had spent a few years weeding, was half destroyed by the construction. None of this was shown on the plans the park district provided regarding the project.

    I grew plants for these gardens and weeded them for many years. I have volunteered at this nature center for 15 years. In the last few years things have changed so much. They have millions of dollars for playgrounds, picnic shelters, and new restrooms but never money for conservation.

    I have grown prairie lilies and lady’s slipper orchids that I had planned to plant at this nature center. Now I don’t want to plant them there, but I also don’t know what else to do with them.

    Given that the focus at this nature center has changed so much, I don’t know if I even want to volunteer there anymore. For every step forward I make, with all the construction and poor management it seems like I am sent five steps backward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, James —
      Thank you for reading, and for taking time to share with me your frustrations about the natural areas where you volunteer. It’s difficult to see our hard work end in this way. I’m so sorry this happened to you at a place where you invested your time and energy.
      I hope you will keep advocating for your special place; if that is no longer possible, then that you will find a new place that will appreciate all the love and enthusiasm you bring to prairie. We need prairie advocates like you!
      Thank you for reading, and thank you for sharing what was on your heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When something is dying, at what point is it best to stop trying to save it and let it die? Destroyed by committee vote. Sabotaged by the very people who stepped forward saying they wanted to take care of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Cindy, I’ve also wondered how hawks know that there will be fleeing mammals and good feeding opportunities around a fire. So interesting to think about what animals know, isn’t it?

    And I’m so glad the burn was a joyful event for you. I’m grateful that you help me see the prairie through your eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kim, for taking time to read and to leave me a note. This year, the prescribed burn was especially poignant. Symbolic, I hope, of a new start, a new season, in so many different ways. I hope you find joy and wonder in the beginnings of spring in Ohio — as I know you will! Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. beautifully written and photographed, Cindy!

    Liked by 1 person

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