Fire and founder meet on the prairie

UNI’s Irvine Prairie in rural Dysart receives special visitors

Dr. Daryl Smith, founder of the University of Northern Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairie Center, pictured on April 21, during a prescribed burn at the Irvine Prairie located in northeast Tama County. –Photo by Soren M. Peterson

Two very special visitors made an appearance on the UNI-Tallgrass Prairie Center’s (TPC) Irvine Prairie north of Dysart this past week – fire and the center’s founder, Dr. Daryl Smith.

“I’m the old burner,” Smith said with a laugh as he stood in the roadway on Thursday, April 21, facing south toward the 77 acre pocket of restored prairie Dysart resident Cathy Irvine donated to TPC in 2018.

As a black perimeter line of fire began to take shape around the roughly 20 acres of prairie set to be burned that afternoon by TPC students, AmeriCorps members and a couple county conservation staffers, Smith chatted with the Telegraph about fire science while making observations that only someone with perhaps the wisdom of an ‘old burner’ could impart.

As a professor in the University of Northern Iowa’s biology department, Smith founded the Tallgrass Prairie Center in 1999, although back then it was called the Native Roadside Vegetation Center. He served as the director of TPC from 2006-2013 after which Dr. Laura Jackson – who was also present for the April 21 burn – became the director.

Smith – a southeast Iowa native – is considered a godfather of sorts across Iowa and the Upper Midwest when it comes to prairie preservation, management, and restoration. Today he is retired but still actively volunteers with the center.

A member of UNI’s Tallgrass Prairie Center burn crew uses a drip torch to ignite a perimeter line on a section of the Irvine Prairie that was burned on April 21. –Photo by Soren M. Peterson

The conditions on April 21 were not perfect prescribed burn conditions, Smith said. The winds were a bit jumpy rather than the 10-20 mph steady winds preferred for a burn, but after a long spate of stormy weather, windy weather, and everything in-between, TPC jumped on the break and headed south from Cedar Falls to the little prairie that could in northeast Tama County.

“It’s like an infection,” Smith said of being part of prescribed prairie burns as the flames from the drip torch line took hold and a wall of fire suddenly licked its way skyward. “We evolved from fire.”

The just under 20-member burn crew present on the Irvine Prairie that afternoon were split in two – placed strategically on the north and south flanks of the area TPC planned to burn which included five acres that had been burned last year and roughly 15 virgin acres.

Smith was stationed behind the north side crew. As he spoke a walkie-talkie on his chest came to life every minute or so with sounds from the crew including TPC director Jackson.

“This is a little bigger crew than you actually need,” Smith said. “Some [of the crew] are trained and some are not. When I was teaching, we started [training] in January and had a good crew by April.”

Tallgrass Prairie Center Plant Materials Program Manager Laura Walter (right) motions as she gives directions to a member of her burn crew on April 21, at the Irvine Prairie located north of Dysart in rural Tama County. –Photo by Soren M. Peterson

Ideally Smith said it’s a good rule of thumb for a restored prairie like Irvine Prairie to be burned every three years.

“Historically that’s about how often the land would burn itself. If you don’t burn [restored prairies] you’ll start getting woody stuff seeding in from nearby. … If you don’t burn or mow it’s going to gradually deteriorate.”

Smith said in about two weeks, little shoots of green from beneath the blackened prairie will begin to appear, signaling the next chapter in the prairie’s history.

As Smith spoke a rabbit suddenly bolted from behind the north perimeter line and hurried its way across the road and into Cathy Irvine’s farmyard like the devil was on its tail.

“He probably got singed a little bit,” Smith said before watching five more rabbits book their own ways out of the fire and into the farmyard’s woodlands.

Members of the burn crew stand watch as fire from a prescribed burn takes hold on April 21 at Irvine Prairie in northeastern Tama County. The 77 acre prairie was donated to the University of Northern Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairie Center in 2018 by rural Dysart resident and farmer Cathy Irvine in memory of her late husband David Irvine. –Photo by Soren M. Peterson

In all his years of burning prairies – a practice which he began in 1980 – Smith said he’s never once lost a fire.

“We came close a couple times,” Smith admitted.

When asked how he would manage an out-of-control burn if the multiple safety and mitigation measures TPC employs failed, Smith looked into the burning fire which could be seen reflecting across his spectacles and replied, “We would need to call a rural fire department.”

“And just pray.”

The Irvine Prairie is open sunrise to sunset daily. Visitors are welcome to explore the prairie’s trails, but are asked to stay off all adjacent row-cropped agricultural fields. To find Irvine Prairie, navigate to 1173 55th Street, Dysart, Iowa. The driveway north of the prairie is a private drive and visitors are asked not to use it. Park on the south side of the road in the grass, near the stone marker.

As the flames from a prescribed burn’s perimeter line lick skyward on April 21 at Irvine Prairie located in northeastern Tama County, a member of UNI’s Tallgrass Prairie Center burn crew looks on. –Photo by Soren M. Peterson