Sandhills Beauty for Ashes

May 27, 2020

My stomach still shivers when a flame is set to dry grass. Maybe it’s the culture I was brought up in, a few personal experiences, or instinct programmed into my DNA. Whatever the reason, after all these years of successfully using fire on our rangelands I still feel my nerves rise in tandem with the flames.

Sarah Sortum drives an ATV during a night burn on her family’s ranch in the spring of 2017. (Photo by Mariah Lundgren)

We had planned to burn this 760-acre pasture around Latta Lake on our ranch last spring to control the regrowth of invasive eastern redcedar. Several years ago a mechanical cut was employed to take out mature trees. Then, in the summer of 2018, we managed our grazing to build up fuel for the following spring. However, the historic spring flooding of 2019 made burning impossible.

So, here we are a year later, facing a different challenge of epic proportions: COVID-19.

 

(Left) A time-lapse photograph of a cedar-choked landscape on the Switzer Ranch shot in 2012. (Middle) A time-lapse photograph of a cedar-free landscape on the Switzer Ranch shot in 2016. The cedars were too large to be removed by fire, so they were mechanically removed. (Right) A time-lapse photograph of a landscape with Eastern redcedar saplings emerging taken in 2018.

Living in the Sandhills, our lifestyle really hasn’t changed much due to social distancing and safety guidelines. Cattle still need fed; spring calving continues as scheduled; fences need to be fixed before summer turnout. The seasons march on, and so must we. The biggest boon for our family has been having our kids home from school. The five kids on the ranch, ranging from ages 8 to 14, have been diligent about getting their schoolwork completed in a timely manner so they can get outside to help us with the daily chores. And now, since we have a crew home seven days a week, we’re making up for those missed burns of last spring.

The crew starting the back-fire next to the Old Buffalo Wallow on Dry Creek. (Photo by Sarah Sortum)

The burn plan in this pasture uses Dry Creek as part of the firebreak. The creek and nearby lake are also used to refill trucks and grass-rigs when needed. Although the pasture has abundant water from these sources, as well as a few flooded valleys leftover from last year’s surplus of rain, most of the landscape is made up of upland hills with a lot of warm season grasses. And trees. Lots and lots of invasive cedar trees that are still a good size to be burned up with a grass fire…if we wait too much longer, allowing the cedar trees to grow in height and density, the kill rate is likely to go down.

The backfire continues to be lit next to a mowed perimeter and wetline. (Photo by Sarah Sortum)

As fire boss, my brother Adam uses hand radios to communicate to each of the nine fire rigs helping on this fire (we supply six of the rigs ourselves). This allows 2-3 person teams to not only stay on top of the fire but to distance themselves from each other by staying in their own truck. Another nod to social distancing will come after the burn is over when Mother hands out individual sack lunches to trucks as they pass by instead of the usual gathering around the cooler to recount the events of the day.

 

The back-fire blackline in the distance is now wide enough for the headfire to be lit. (Photo by Sarah Sortum)

The first backfire is set in the southeast corner of the pasture, close to what we call the old buffalo wallow; a widened out part of Dry Creek between a meadow and steep upland hills. The flame is set right beside the wetline, allowing the fire to burn slowly against the wind. As the burned area widens, following trucks keep watch to make sure the flame does not jump the wetline, starting a fire on the wrong side. Eventually, the burned area is widened, creating a nice black-line that will serve as a firebreak.

The black-line in this pasture is a slow process that we accomplish in several stages. The wind is coming up a bit, which always makes things interesting, and we are next to a neighboring landowner so we want to be very diligent about keeping everything in control. The south side of the pasture is a mile and a half long, with abundant fuel on both sides of the fence so we use our patience, take care to not get ahead of ourselves, and finally hit the corner to turn north. Now the fun begins.

Once we are confident we have sufficient black to burn into and trucks are re-filled with water, the head-fire is set. The low humidity, breeze and fuel allow the head-fire to take right off. We want a hot fire and that’s what we got!

 

The headfire takes off! (Photo by Sarah Sortum)

My job is the lookout, so after I help keep an eagle eye on the backfire lighting I drive to a tall hill to watch the head-fire. After snapping a few photos I look up and what I see makes my shivering stomach drop. Out in the middle of the pasture, between the black-line and the head-fire, I see my Humvee-turned-grass rig that my two sons are manning. “Ah, son,” I murmur to the hot air, “what are you doing out there?” I feel a few more heartbeats in my throat before the Humvee turns, heading towards the black and safety. I utter a quick prayer of thanks and remind myself to have a motherly chat after the burn before I see Adam waving me down.

 

A temporary PBT time-lapse camera documents the burn. Several trees in the background await their demise.

As I drive my four-wheeler over to talk to Adam the heat of the head-fire slaps me in the face. When I pull up to Adam’s truck, which he calls Mega-Tron, he jumps out and asks me if the two time-lapse cameras in the pasture will be okay. (The fire is a bit hotter than we anticipated.) The head-fire isn’t too close to either camera yet so I tell him I’ll check it out. First, I hightail it to the camera that’s been installed overlooking the lake. I drive as close as I can then jump out and grab my shovel. There’s not a lot of tall fuel around the base of the post the camera is mounted on but I quickly dig a firebreak around it just in case. “You’re on your own now camera,” I say as I check on the progress of the head-fire. “I think you’ll be fine.”

I motor on over to a temporary camera that is closer to the lake. My dad is nearby, boot top deep in the lake holding down a pump hose that is sucking water from the lake into a truck. He hollers at me. “Hey, are those cameras going to be alright?”

“Yep!” I holler back, hoping I’m right. But to make sure, we set a small backfire right around the temp camera to keep it safe from the larger head-fire flames. As I drive on to my next lookout point I chuckle inwardly. With all the things to keep track of during the fire my dad and brother’s thoughts were with those cameras. While they don’t voice it often, they value what is being documented with this technology. These cameras help the land tell its own story, which is more powerful than any human voice.

My dad, Bruce Switzer: now a fire-in-the-Sandhills convert. (Photo by Sarah Sortum)

Parked on a hill I can really see the smoke start to rise; mostly dusty gray in color until it hits a tree, making black boil up. As I track the smoke up in the sky I notice several birds. Grabbing my binoculars, I see about a dozen Swainson’s Hawks hovering in the smoke of the head-fire until one suddenly folds its wings to dive down after prey. As the afternoon wanes on, more and more hawks arrive. Swirling, hovering, diving. Doing what they’ve been doing on the prairie for eons. By the end of the day I count around fifty Swainson’s Hawks working the fire to their advantage.

The head-fire makes relatively short work of the rest of the pasture. As evening approaches Adam walks out to start a few more spots that are surrounded by water. After the main fire is mopped up, we send our help home as it will take them about an hour to travel through the hills to reach the road before dark. Adam and Dad take one more drive around the perimeter of the burn to make sure any hotspots are kicked in or put out. I pull up on a hill to watch the last of the flames burn themselves out.

My brother, Adam Switzer, completes the last lighting of the day. (Photo by Sarah Sortum)

The sun slides behind the hill, prompting me to look around. Several of the Swainson’s Hawks are perched on fenceposts, a few have landed on the burned ground to scavenge around and many are still in the air. Behind me, a valley flooded in water holds a nice variety of ducks, shorebirds and a few pelicans. Looking east, I see six Trumpeter Swans gracing a wet meadow. I take a deep breath and finally feel my shoulders relax and stomach unclench. 

My son, Henry, checks out a partially burned blowout. (Photo by Sarah Sorturm)

I let the last drops of sunlight take away my stress of not only today but the past weeks as well. While today was successful and it feels good to accomplish an important goal in our ranch management, I find myself humbled and excruciatingly thankful for where I am, who and what I’m surrounded by. I think about how this burn will benefit this piece of ground, and the life that takes place upon it, well into the future. Just as the grass will rise bright and strong after the fire, I have confidence that we’ll come out on the other side of our struggles stronger, wiser, better. The water reflects the black landscape and I smell ash in the air but I find peace in knowing hope is rekindled through sacrifice.

 

Photograph shot on June 4, 2020 from the PBT time-lapse camera at Latta Lake. This photograph was made a few weeks after the Switzers burned.

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We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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