Dry conditions at this time of year can lead to an increased danger of wildfires. While a fire from a prescribed burn in the spring will not harm perennial grasses on grazing lands, a wildfire may act differently. A wildfire can cause enough damage, especially to bunch grasses, to result in a decline in productivity for a year or two. This is not always the case, however. The best general advice on burned rangeland is to just wait and see how well it recovers.
A good case example is last year’s widespread and intense wildfire in Barber County. Following that fire, regrowth of grasses started within two weeks. Precipitation was at or above normal for most of 2016 which allowed for good recovery. Little bluestem was regrowing from the outside of the bunchgrass crown. Rhizomatous species such as Indiangrass were sending up new shoots.
The 2016 wildfire also moved rapidly enough through the rangeland -- with high winds, low relative humidity, and warm air temperatures – that most grasses, especially those with rhizomes, could recover well.
Still, wildfires can and have damaged grasses in other cases. An earlier wildfire in central Kansas that occurred in mid-March in a dry year on shortgrass rangelands reduced forage production 65% the year of the burn and 39% the following year. This shortgrass rangeland consisted primarily of blue grama, buffalo grass, and western wheatgrass. In mixed prairie grassland, bunchgrasses such as little bluestem with large accumulations of dead plant material may be damaged as the passing fire ignites the dry material and generates increased temperatures at the soil surface for a period of time. If this occurs, forage production may be reduced by about 10-20 percent.
With wildfires, there are also potential issues concerning soil quality, soil erodibility, and growing wheat.
Where a wildfire occurs, the ability of rangeland or tame grass pastures to regenerate forage depends on precipitation amounts, the time of year that the fire occurs, the water infiltration ability of the soil, and management factors following the fire. Regarding the wildfire in Barber County in 2016, most of the soils in south central Kansas had very good moisture going into the 2015-2016 winter. The topsoil was generally quite dry at the time of the fire in late March 2016, but subsoil moisture was still good. This helped grass recover in the long-term. This winter, drought conditions have been developing in Kansas, especially in western and eastern parts of the state (Figure 2). Nearly 65% of Kansas is experiencing some level of drought at this time.
Warm, dry, and windy conditions have been occurring recently, and a Red Flag Warning was issued for much of eastern Kansas on February 16. Some wildfires have already occurred this year. Vegetation recovery will depend on the time of the fire and subsequent weather conditions.
The crowns of grass plants often survive a wildfire and will regrow, but some can be damaged if the fire occurs when soil and air conditions are extremely dry. If plant litter remains after the fire, less damage will have occurred to the plant crowns, and soil conditions will be better. As noted earlier, good precipitation during the early growing season following the wildfire will hasten recovery and lessen the immediate impact of the fire.
Evaporation and runoff may be increased if the fire occurs when the grasses are not actively growing. Bare soil may lose at least one-half inch of moisture per week through evaporation. The higher the clay content of the soil, the greater the potential for puddling and runoff.
Wildfires can reduce stored food reserves of grasses, reduce moisture infiltration, increase evaporation and runoff, lead to erosion, create grazing distribution problems, lead to an infestation of noxious weeds, and injure or kill trees.
Trees can burn quite hot, and for an extended period of time, if they catch fire. Eastern red cedar trees, among others, may be killed by a wildfire. On rangeland, this would normally be considered a good thing. Following the 2016 Anderson Creek fire in Barber County, the death of the Eastern red cedar resulted in flowing water in streams that had been dry for years. The main concern now is to remove those standing dead trees since they serve as perches for raptors that prey on young quail and prairie chicken chicks. In addition, song birds that eat red cedar berries will end up planting new trees under the dead trees.
A. Native warm-season grass rangeland
Between mid-March and June, wildfires generally do not reduce forage production as much as fires later in the year. However, if conditions are dry, regrowth will not occur and stocking rate must be reduced. Wildfires at this time may change plant composition of the grazing land.
When wildfires occur between late June and frost, the major consideration is to protect the plants from overuse. Immediate removal of the grazing animals is usually necessary. This will permit regrowth and allow plants to accumulate food reserves before winter. Wildfires occurring between fall and mid-March leave the soil bare until spring growth. Forage yields will be reduced, and a reduction is stocking rate is advised.
On sandy soils, blowouts should be controlled as soon as possible. Mulching with manure, straw, or hay free of noxious weeds, along with reseeding can stabilize the blowout area. Fencing of blowouts will restrict livestock traffic and speed recovery.
Several grazing management options exist after a wildfire. If a wildfire occurs where prescribed burning is practiced, burn the areas that were untouched by the wildfire in late spring, when the desirable grass species have 1 to 1.5 inches of new growth. This will encourage grazing of the entire pasture. Observe where the animals are grazing, and use grazing distribution tools such as salt, mineral, and oilers to attract cattle to underutilized areas.
If a wildfire occurs where prescribed burning is not practiced, management decisions should be based on when the grassland was burned, how much of it was burned, and where livestock water is located.
Example 1: If there is a livestock-watering source in both the burned and unburned portions of the grassland, divide the burned and unburned areas (using an electric fence, for example) and reduce the stocking rate in the burned area.
Example 2: If there is only one livestock-watering source in the grassland area, the decision is whether to manage the burned or the unburned area. If the unburned area is larger, separate the two areas with an electric fence and stock the unburned area at the normal rate. If the burned area is larger, either manage only the burned part by reducing the stocking rate or establish an alternate water source, fence the area, and reduce the stocking rate on the burned portion. If the sole watering source is in the burned portion, the unburned portion would not be utilized unless the area was fenced and another water source established or a lane is fenced off to allow watering from the unburned area.
Example 3: If only a small portion of the grassland is burned, fence it off and reduce the stocking rate on the unburned portion accordingly.
Example 4: In areas where prescribed burning is commonly practiced, a partial burn of one-third of the pasture may provide an opportunity to try patch-burn grazing. Livestock will concentrate on the recently burned area, but the next year a different third of the pasture is burned and the livestock will change their grazing habits. Patch-burn grazing will result in rotational grazing without using a fence.
Mowing unburned areas in the early spring can encourage livestock to move from the burned area. However, don’t mow in August or September. Early intensive grazing is another option for burned areas. Removing all livestock from the grassland by mid-July provides late-season rest and time for the desirable grasses to replenish root reserves.
B. Tamegrass hay meadows
Hay meadows burned by wildfires will probably produce less hay. To return hay meadows to their former production, cut the meadow in early to mid-July to allow regrowth and replenishment of root reserves.
Effects on soil
The number one issue regarding the impact of a wildfire on soil quality is going to be susceptibility to erosion from water or wind. Past research, mainly on forest soils after a fire, indicate there is nothing to worry about as far as long-lasting chemical or biological effects in the soil from a fire. Managers and landowners may notice a hardening of the soil surface, but there is no reason to be concerned that the fire will cause the soils to become hydrophobic (water-repelling). That can happen in forest soils, but is unlikely in grassland soils. Any surface hardening caused by the wildfire will likely be shallow and temporary.
If the vegetative cover on the surface of the soil was completely burned off, this increases the potential for wind erosion during the early spring months, when wind erosion rates are often at their highest.
If the vegetation begins to regrow within a week or two, which may well occur on warm-season grasslands, this will reduce the potential for erosion problems. When vegetation or residue cover is insufficient, ridges and large soil clods (or aggregates) are frequently the only means of controlling erosion on large areas. Seeding a temporary cover crop is another option for small areas, if the permanent grasses and forbs do not seem to be growing back two or three weeks after receiving some moisture.
Another option for smaller tracts of land left bare of vegetation or residue by the wildfire is to roughen the land surface with ridges and clods. This reduces the wind velocity and traps drifting soils. While this is not practical to do on large acreages of rangeland, it can be an effective practice on smaller acreages, such as a section of cropland ground. A cloddy soil surface will absorb more wind energy than a flat, smooth surface. Better yet, a soil surface that is both ridged and cloddy will absorb even more wind energy and be even more effective in reducing the potential for wind erosion.
Crosswind ridges are formed by tilling or planting across the prevailing wind erosion direction. If erosive winds show no seasonal or annual prevailing direction, this practice has limited protective value. In Kansas, the prevailing winds in early spring the prevailing winds are from the south. Crosswind ridges at this time of year, therefore, should be in an east-west direction to protect from both northerly and southerly winds.
Tillage implements can form ridges and depressions that alter wind velocity. The depressions also trap saltating soil particles and stop avalanching of eroding material downwind.
However, soil ridges protrude higher into the turbulent wind layer and are subject to greater wind forces. Therefore, it is important that cloddiness on top on the ridge is sufficient to withstand the added wind force, otherwise they will quickly erode, and the beneficial effects will be lost. Ridging sandy soils, for example, is of little value because the ridges of sand are erodible and soon leveled by the wind.
Clod-forming tillage produces aggregates or clods that are large enough to resist the wind force and trap smaller moving particles. They are also stable enough to resist breakdown by abrasion throughout the wind erosion season.
If clods are large and stable enough, as smaller particles are removed or trapped, the surface becomes stable or “armored” against erosive action. The duration of protection depends on the resistance of the clods to abrasion or changes in the wind direction.
Of the factors that affect the size and stability of soil aggregates, most notable is soil texture. Sandy or coarse-textured soils lack sufficient amounts of silt and clay to bind particles together to form aggregates. Such soils form a single-grain structure or weakly cemented clods, a condition that is quite susceptible to erosion by wind. Loams, silt loams, and clay loams tend to consolidate and form stable aggregates that are more resistant to erosive winds. Clays and silty clays are subject to fine granulation and more subject to erosion.
For more information, see Principles of Wind Erosion and Its Control, K-State Research and Extension publication MF-2860, at: http://www.bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/MF2860.pdf
Wheat can be injured by fire or super-heated air, and this injury will be most severe on the edge of the field closest to the heat. Wheat in the jointing stage or beyond is in greater danger as the growing point is above ground, but wheat in the tillering stages of growth can also suffer consequences of extreme heat. It is not uncommon to have some injury to growing wheat on the edge of a field if the field is adjacent to a prescribed burn. The injury symptoms may be bleached or scorched leaves and possibly damaged growing points. The extent of injury from a wildfire depends on how quickly the fire moved through the field or around the field.
Research has found that the lethal high temperature for wheat is about 120 degrees F. Wheat exposed to temperatures above this threshold will most likely not recover.
A wildfire can easily heat the air or the plants themselves to temperatures well above that level, depending on the distance of the fire from the wheat, possibly resulting in irrecoverable damage to the affected plants.
Wildfire injury to wheat will most likely be quite variable through the field. The only way to accurately assess any possible injury is to slice open the stems and examine the growing points about a week after the fire. As with freeze damage, if the growing point is green and turgid, it is fine. If it is white and soft, it is damaged. If there was extensive damage, the ability of the wheat to recover will be similar to the ability to recover from spring freeze injury.
Walt Fick, Rangeland Management Specialist
DeAnn Presley, Soil Management Specialist
Romulo Lollato, Wheat and Forages Specialist
Mary Knapp, Weather Data Library