Earth, Wind and Fire in Kansas' Flint Hills
Note: Since this article was published in 2016, Flying W Ranch has closed its guest activities but continues to operate as a cattle ranch.
As the sky deepens to the indigo of twilight, I join nearly 300 borderline reckless souls on the crest of a tallgrass prairie hill. A breeze carries the thick scent of smoke and a few gray specks of ash-fluttering like out-of-season snowflakes-past us. We're here at the pleasure of Josh, Gwen and Josie Hoy, owners of the Flying W Ranch (encompassing some 7,000 acres of Flint Hills prairie) and organizers of this unusual party. As we all arrived, the Hoys handed out boxes of matches, and for the second time today, we're going to put them to use.
The Hoys and friends from neighboring ranches tower above us on horseback while herding our ragtag party into a straight-enough line. Before us, the ground slopes gently away, dressed in a skein of last year's woolly-rough grasses, dry and brittle from winter's killing cold. At the base of the hill, reduced to dollhouse proportions, sit the ranch house, the guest cabins, the horse accommodations. Behind us, storm clouds gather over the rolling hills. The horses snort and fidget and stamp the ground. "OK," Josh shouts when we're all in place. "Light 'em up!"
Fire, a powerful symbol of destruction, brings new life to the Hoys' stretch of tallgrass prairie outside Clements, Kansas (144 miles southwest of Kansas City). And fire sits at the heart of spring's annual Flames in the Flint Hills festival (April 8, 2017) that lets a few hundred greenhorns spend a day on the ranch taking guided horseback rides, dining on food made with (extremely) locally raised ingredients, learning about prairie ecology, listening to local musicians fiddle and oh-so-carefully setting the hills on fire.
On the hilltop, I strike a match and drop the flame, then another and another. One match smolders and dies; impotent. The other matches ignite a few blades of grass at a time, enough to set off a chain reaction-a fiery game of tag that eventually attracts the whole neighborhood. Soon, the ground before me is alive with flickering tongues of red and orange heat. The act feels deeply transgressive. It seems those Smokey Bear public service announcements are ingrained in me. And to deliberately start a fire on the vast stretch of cracker-dry prairie (outside the protective confines of a fire pit) on a breezy night … well, I half expect to hear my name in the evening news.
It takes a lot of work to run a ranch; at the Flying W, locals, visitors and even a few friendly animals pitch in.
But this fire is a group effort. In the glowing light of a hundred tiny flames blooming like wildflowers, I see the Hoys showing my fellow fire starters how to spread the flames with a pitchfork. With help, the small fires rapidly grow taller and wider, melting together to form a great burning wall, licking as high as my knees. Thick curls of smoke rise and surround me, and as the heat builds, I wander back to the cool relief of unscathed ground. The smoke-tinged wind pushes the fire away from me, toward the charred firebreak (a strip of land burned by the Hoys earlier in the week to prevent runaway flames), where flames dwindle to glowing embers. Then I strike more matches and begin the process again, lighting up another piece of the prairie.
The intoxicating and beautiful power of a burning prairie isn't just tolerated; it's encouraged. Modern studies from nearby Kansas State University (set on the edge of the Flint Hills in Manhattan) lend empirical support to the idea that annual or biannual burns are beneficial, but they're like studies confirming that skipping dinner leaves you hungry–prairie burns are common lore.
Wind back the calendar 150 years, Brian Obermeyer, landscape programs manager with The Nature Conservancy, tells festivalgoers, to when the tallgrass prairie stretched from Canada to Texas. "Lightning would have started a lot of wildfires, and there wasn't anything to stop them, so the prairie just naturally would have burned. Maybe not all of it, every year, but enough." The fires killed invasive species, kept trees at bay and encouraged native grasses to set seed. From the scorched ground grew tender grass shoots; herds of hungry bison followed. "There's evidence that Native Americans knew how important fire was as a tool," Brian says. "They intentionally burned the prairie to draw bison to graze."
Today, replace bison with cattle, and the scene is the same. Ranchers have been burning the prairie for generations. "The nutrients in the grasses go back to the soil," says veteran Flint Hills rancher Jim Hoy (Josh's father and neighbor). "All we need after a burn is rain. Come back in a week, and the ground will be green."
But for now, it's like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. When the hill is cleared of its grass and the homemade ice cream and hot coffee at the ranch are gone, I walk down a gravel road to my car, the way lit by the smoke-hazed glow from neighboring ranches, where a dozen fires still burn.
The blackened ground briefly continues to smoke after the flames die back. But one good rain brings bright green grass to color the prairie.
FEEL THE BURN
Want to experience a burn? The uniquely participatory Flames in the Flint Hills festival sells out quickly each year. If you can't snag a ticket, check with local nature preserves to see if they're holding a burn you could attend. The pros at Annett Nature Center in Indianola, Iowa, and Kankakee Sands Preserve in Beaver Township, Indiana, welcome the public to watch the action. Just want the cowboy experience? The Hoys offer guests hands-on ranch retreats with horseback riding and cattle drives all summer long (flinthillsflyingw.com).