The spring dormant season in Eastern Nebraska was frequently a time to reset for the tallgrass prairies that historically covered what is now the Omaha area. Every fall, after a summer of growing tall, the thick visible vegetation of a native prairie goes dormant. The plants store energy for the next year in their deep root systems. The winter snows then compact the vegetation into a thick duff layer. Once the snow begins to dissipate, the dry conditions amount to a tinderbox, just awaiting a spark.
Lightning from dry lightning in the early spring is often identified as the beginning of many massive prairie fires. Native Americans in the area were also known to start fires. They appreciated the benefits these fires provided, such as ease of travel and fresh edible sprouts for their horses. They also recognized fire’s value to the management of the landscape, and lived comfortably with the presence of wildfire. When fire approached their homes, they simply burned out around themselves and were not devastated by it.
Other lesser-known causes of fire on the plains included spontaneous combustion from the gas buildup inside of dead bison on the open plains. Along the oak-lined rivers, the accumulation of huge amounts of fecal waste from passenger pigeons was also known to combust under the right conditions.
Historically, these fires would often have stretched for miles and miles. While they were vast, these fires were also patchy. Fire only burns where fuel exists, and goes out where it does not. Cold north-facing slopes, low wet areas, and areas that were heavily grazed upon by massive bison herds would have slowed and stopped the fire with irregular edges. Even the way in which a fire spreads across an area affects the ecological usage of the space.
Areas that slowly backburned increased the time that woody roots were exposed to heat and thus were effectively killed. Only the truest of prairie plant species could survive the heat, thus creating favorable conditions for such species as the Greater Prairie Chickens and bison. Areas that quickly head-fired, did not burn as hot, allowing this or that woody species to resprout from the reserves stored in its roots, creating areas favored by elk and Bluebirds.
The result of all this was a beautiful mosaic of differing but connected prairie pieces, shaped both by the frequency and the irregularity of disturbance in the prairie. A mosaic that had space set aside for every niche of life found under the Nebraska sun.
Photo by Stacey Coury