WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Annual Knox College Tradition Burns Bright in the Spring

Mar 15, 2017

Every spring since 1954, Knox College students and faculty have taken part in a one day event that helps bring new life to an old prairie.  The event is so popular that the school's sports teams derive their nickname from it.

It's the annual prairie burn, which took place this month at the Green Oaks Biological Field Station outside of Victoria. Stuart Allison, Knox College biology professor and Director of Green Oaks, said the burn is done on one of three sections of the field each year.  This year the focus was on the west portion, which covers about 19 acres. 

"If you don't burn around here, trees will start to move in and begin to take over. It also, when you're burning, it releases all the nutrients stored in the dead plant bodies," Allison said.

To start the day, Allison and 12 students gathered at the field house at Green Oaks to run down safety procedures and tips. Allison split the students into two teams; one team to help start the fire and the other team to help prevent the flames from spreading to the forest. They then loaded up equipment such as rubber swatters and portable water guns.

Once his rundown was complete, Allison checked the conditions with a pocket weather meter. The conditions were perfect for the prairie burn:  a gentle breeze, low humidity, and cool temperatures.

Senior Liliana Coelho (left) and biology professor Stuart Allison started the fire in the west portion of the Green Oaks field.
Credit T.J. Carson

The crew walked along a gravel road to setup for the start of the prairie burn. Senior Liliana Coelho, participating in her second prairie burn, was given the honor of laying down the small flames that eventually grew and roared as the fire moved along the field. The sustainable social change major did this by lighting a kerosene drip torch. She held the end of the torch against the ground and slowly walked backwards to lay down a line of fire. Allison assisted her.

Coelho said it felt good to start the fire that will burn the 19 acres.

"It’s quite beautiful, I think, to see the power of fire and to be so close to it. But also seeing it be so controlled. And kinda knowing that is this going to help the regeneration of the prairie," Coelho said.

The rest of the students stayed behind to keep an eye on the flames. One of them is Klayton Soucy, who is doing a post-graduate research fellowship on population behavior at Green Oaks.  This year's burn is Soucy's first, and his assignment is to use a portable water gun to put out unwanted flare-ups.

Klayton Soucy keeps a close eye on the fires to make sure they don't spread into the forest.
Credit T.J. Carson

Soucy said his goal for the day was to gain experience in  land management.

"For what I want to do, I want to reclaim land, restore land that's been disrupted by oil or mining, or stuff like that. And this is what you gotta do after you initially reclaim it," Soucy said.

The flames began to die out after a couple hours, and the entire crew did a final perimeter check to make sure no more patches were still burning.

Once the site was secure and flame-free, the crew returned to the Green Oaks house for some cookies to celebrate a job well done.