By Russell A. Graves
“We’ll start a fire on both sides of this field and it will eventually burn together,” says Dale Rollins as we ride his side-by-side utility vehicle along the ranch’s interior roads and monitor the bustle of activity that’s around. Spread out around the 40-some-odd acre field, interns, researchers, and prescribed fire experts carefully coordinate their plan so that winter cured prairie grasses and diesel-fueled drip torch are brought together to create a conflagration that (albeit contradictory to conventional wisdom) will actually benefit this land and its inhabitants therein.
Rollins is articulate and animated as he talks. He’s a natural and relaxed speaker, a dedicated teacher and has often been called the Will Rogers of Wildlife Biologists. As such, he’s dedicated his entire professional career to understanding the idiosyncrasies of quail and the nuanced land management they require to thrive on harsh and often inhospitable rangeland environs.
When the technician inverts the torch and spurts out a stream of orange hot flame that can’t be fueled by more than a couple of tablespoons of diesel, the dried and dormant grass crackles and pops. Its stores of energy built from sunlight, rain, and photosynthesis turn to flame and heat in an instant.
Dirty white smoke drifts high and pushes lazily to the north as the fire advances at a safe and manageable pace across the field. I feel uneasy about the fire at first as it seems unnatural to start a blaze during the peak, late winter wildfire season and in country that’s been plagued with raging and out of control wildfires over the past decade.
Rollins and his crew; however, are studied and knowledgeable about fire science, and the flames behave exactly as his burn leader said it would during the safety briefing earlier in the day. A prefect mix of temperature, humidity, and wind speed make the fire behave predictably. When you can control the fire, it becomes a valuable tool for wildlife managers, and the team assembled to administer prescribed burns on the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (RPQRR) this season wields their powers deftly.
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