Getting the weather to cooperate took a couple of days, but the wind finally laid down enough Wednesday for a professional wildfire crew from Montana to burn portions of Oakville Prairie west of Grand Forks.
“The wind has been extremely difficult to deal with this year,” said Wayne Brown of Badger Creek Wildfire in Poplar, Mont.
UND owns the Oakville Prairie land, which is managed as a wildlife management area through a partnership with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Massive clouds of smoke rose into the sky west of Grand Forks early Wednesday afternoon as crews lit fires on two sides to minimize the impact of light and variable southerly winds on the first of two units being burned, Brown said.
Shifting winds make fire behavior more unpredictable, he said.
“We’re taking fires up two sides at the same time so we create a black zone, or buffer on the downwind side,” Brown said. “So when we finally do set the headfire with the forecasted winds, it will run into itself and not go any farther.”
Prescribed burns are conducted to remove invasive plants and woody vegetation while replenishing native grasses such as big and little bluestem, said Kathryn Yurkonis, an associate professor of biology at UND.
The burns are conducted following a strict prescription of wind, temperature and relative humidity guidelines.
As sunset approached, the crew had burned all or most of the 159 acres scheduled for burning on the first unit and was just wrapping up one side of a 130-acre burn planned on the second unit, Yurkonis said.
“This is awesome today,” she said. “We’ve got two units we’re pretty much going to get done in one day, which has never happened before so that’s good.
“Things are moving out here.”
Oakville Prairie, at 960 acres, represents the largest piece of unplowed prairie in the Red River Valley. This is the fourth season Badger Creek has burned portions of Oakville Prairie.
Wednesday’s burn also offered an opportunity for students to learn more about fire behavior, Yurkonis said.
Devan McGranahan, an assistant professor of range science at North Dakota State University, was on hand to set an array of sensors, Yurkonis said. The sensors will allow students to collect information on the temperature and speed of the main fire as it burns through different levels of soil moisture and types of vegetation.
“They’ve got all kinds of different technology on the ground right now,” she said. “We’re actually looking at the science of the fire itself this time around, which is pretty cool. We can learn about how efficient the fire is in different types of vegetation and what kind of consumption they’re getting.
Wednesday’s window of burning opportunity appears to be short-lived. Rain and snow are in the forecast across the region Thursday and Friday, the National Weather Service predicts.
“We’re grateful we got fire on the ground for sure,” Yurkonis said.