Prescribed burn near Naismith Park will spark future growth at pocket prairie

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A symphony of fire and flame enveloped a frosty Monarch Waystation on Thursday morning in south-central Lawrence. The purposeful fire was part of a carefully orchestrated plan to encourage biodiversity outside the home of Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios.

The maestro conducting this unusual neighborhood sight at 1516 W. 27th St.: Courtney Masterson, ecologist and executive director for the nonprofit Native Lands Restoration Collaborative.

Masterson, the burn supervisor, set small lines of fire, one at a time, with a torch filled with a combination of diesel and gasoline while Podrebarac and land stewards from Native Lands yielded rakes to direct the crackling fire.

Prairie fires enrich soil with nutrients while facilitating wildflower seed germination and native grass growth. Thursday’s event was the first prescribed burn for Podrebarac and Rios’ 2,200-square-foot little pocket prairie — a dream that took root during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson, ecologist and executive director for Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, starts a prescribed burn on Jan. 4, 2024.

Towering several feet, thousands of yellow black-eyed Susans in the spring and summer dance in the wind alongside numerous varieties of milkweed and lance-leaf coreopsis, St. John’s wort, hydrangea, hibiscus, American beautyberry and echinacea. Together they provide a food source for monarch butterflies and other pollinators, as well as a habitat for rabbits, rodents and birds.

Podrebarac shared excitement about the renewal that will come from the burn. She and Rios had hoped to burn the pocket prairie last year, but the weather didn’t cooperate, so they mowed and raked instead. Clearing the dead leaves and material prevents the “choking out” of native wildflowers, bushes and plants. It also allows for more direct access to planting pockets.

“So this will be a lot less work. And it’s gonna give us a nice clean palette to put down some new seeds,” Podrebarac said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Homeowner Dena Podrebarac uses a rake to direct the fire at their little pocket prairie on Jan. 4, 2024.

Thursday’s burn wasn’t clean and perfect. Unburned patches and some leaf litter remained, and that’s OK, Masterson said. When it comes to biodiversity, chaos and heterogeneity are good. About 30% of native bees, Masterson explained, live in hollowed wildflower stems or dried wood above ground. During a burn, bees, insects, cocoons, chrysalises and such need places of refuge. Ideally, future burns would rotate.

“We don’t want it all black and perfect and low because that means we killed everything above ground off,” she said. “We want to be hosting as much micro niches as we can, as many little habitats as we can.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Patches of green remain within the burned Monarch Waystation at 1516 W. 27th St.

Masterson would love to see more Douglas County homeowners creating spaces like this one to promote responsible land stewardship. Native plants clean stormwater, anchor soil and improve soil quality. She referred to the married couple’s pocket prairie as “an oasis.”

“In the future, as we face further issues with climate change, spaces like this are going to be happy, healthy spaces … when they take away watering your lawn and fertilizing your lawn, in response to climate change, Dena is going to be ready,” Masterson said.

As smoke drifted across the yard, the event drew the attention of neighbors and passersby. Ecological fires, albeit much larger in scale, occur on the Kansas prairie next to expansive interstates and highways each spring but rarely on a city street within a residential neighborhood during wintertime.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A prescribed burn at Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios’ “little pocket prairie” will facilitate growth of native plants next spring.

Masterson said ranchers like those in the Flint Hills who burn in late spring are managing grass rather than working toward expanding biodiversity in wild and native prairies. Burning for biodiversity occurs during dormancy.

“They’re trying to graze cattle and bison on it,” Masterson said. “And if you want lots and lots of grass, you’re actually working the opposite of what we’re doing. You’re trying to knock your biodiversity out and just support grass.”

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Burning in late spring can stress native wildflowers, nesting birds, as well as snakes, lizards and turtles who are out looking for mates, habitats and resources, Masterson said. Remnant prairies have seen huge dropoffs of rare spring ephemerals — species such as prairie violets and trout lilies, she said.

“And the thought is that we’re burning too late,” Masterson said. “Those species are already up trying to bloom, budding out and we’re burning fire right through them at that point.”

Masterson said she and her team take clues from nature instead of simply following the traditions of dominant culture.

“There’s no reason cattle wouldn’t favor a biodiverse landscape, we’re just starting to shift away from what previous generations have done as we’ve learned,” Masterson said. “Another one of those things that Indigenous knowledge could have helped us avoid, you know, there’s been 100-plus years of us burning at the wrong time, and we don’t know how much diversity has been lost because of our lack of knowledge.”

Lt. Jason Love, of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, was on hand to observe the burn, which lasted about 30 minutes. Masterson distributed a written notice about the prescribed burn to neighbors within 500 feet. The letter urged those with health conditions who might be vulnerable to smoke to take precautions during the event “to limit smoke entering your home.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson directs fire with her rake near 27th Street on Jan. 4, 2024.

LDCFM Prevention Division Chief Chris King said beforehand the department had approved the prescribed burn plan. The department issues two types of permits: residential burn permits, which commonly involve disposal of yard waste, and commercial permits.

A Geographic Information Systems layer from Douglas County’s website allows staff members to place a pin at the site of a prescribed burn. Emergency dispatchers also are notified in case of incoming phone calls, according to King.

Any approved plan is subject to change according to the weather, particularly wind speeds.

“In Kansas, it can be very calm now and gusts this afternoon,” King said. In general, wind speeds must fall between 5 and 15 mph for burns like this one.

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Masterson deemed Thursday’s prescribed burn a success. She said without a minimum amount of wind, the fire could be stagnant.

“That means our team can’t move with the fire,” Masterson said. “It also exhausts your team. And we don’t really want the fire to sit there and burn and put a ton of heat in one spot. The goal of this is to clean the litter up and let the root systems reemerge. If you have fire sitting, it’s possible you’re doing more damage to your root system.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Dried leaves, stems and native grass dominate the dormant pocket prairie before a prescribed burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson waters down native bushes near the house while Ryan Riedel, background, prepares the yard for the prescribed burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Smoke floats through the yard while land stewards rake and direct fire during the prescribed burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson sets a line of fire during the burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A combination of gasoline and diesel fill a torch used at the prescribed burn.

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A sign designating the area as a Monarch Waystation stands in the middle of Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios’ front yard.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A mailbox post stands unaffected after the prescribed burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney King, of Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, works a prescribed burn at 1516 W. 27th St.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney King
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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