Go to the smoke

Tuesday, March 21, 2017
An aerial view of the fire near Gothenburg, Neb.
Dick Trail/McCook Gazette

Downtown McCook the smell of smoke was in the air. With the thoughts of the devastation recently wrought across neighboring rural Western Kansas this, old has-been rural, fireman was curious. Hop in my airplane and go check it out—surely it wouldn’t take long as the smoke smell was quite strong, and visible, at the airport.

Not hard to follow as the visible plume rolled from the northeast straight as a furrow. Alongside the smoke trail the old Cessna bounced along in choppy air. I climbed to find smoother air and better visibility and found a smooth top to the plume at 2500 feet above the surface of the pasture and farm ground below. Smooth as glass on top of the smoke which told me that a temperature inversion was keeping the atmosphere below quite murky. On top, the inversion my airborne thermometer read 60 degrees and Google told me that it was 50 degrees below me in the nearby town of Farnam. Pretty good inversion because it is supposed to work the other way around, warm below and cooler air as one climbs in altitude.

When I launched I figured that it would only be a short flight before I could spy flames. Not so. The smoky flames were actually 46 miles northeast of McCook’s Airport or only about 8 miles south and a bit west of the town of Gothenburg.

From my vantage point, it looked to be a controlled burn of the dense western cedar covered canyon land draining into the North Platte River. The scenic south rim of the Platte River valley. There are very few manmade structures in that area, just steep canyon sides mainly grown up to native pasture. The cedar trees take over, shade out the good grass, and so actually decrease the value of the area for cattlemen. Deer and elk find it to be suitable habitat but those wild, though beautiful to behold, animals are not of much economic value to the owner who has to pay taxes for the privilege or holding that land. Cattle make a much better return on investment and cattle prosper on unshaded grass, not cedar browse.

Before white men came to this area it was one big undulating sea of prairie grass. Perfect habitat for the immense herds of bison to graze and roam. Fire was the tool in nature that eliminated trees. Fires set by lightning strikes and also started by the native plains Indians sometimes to aid in hunting the buffalo. Writers telling of life along the Oregon Trail mention that the only firewood or lumber they could find was from trees growing on the islands of the braided Platte River.

I remember my dad relating a conversation he had with my great-grandmother who years before homesteaded with her husband in a “soddy dugout” on the north bank of the Driftwood Creek about south of Culbertson. Grandma Hoyt said that when she washed clothes she hung them out to dry on the tallest trees around those being native plum bushes. Hard to imagine now but it was all one big sea of grass.

Fire is still a great tool for keeping desired pasture land free of trees, especially cedar trees. It looked to me that what I spotted from the air was a controlled burn to do just that. I noted a couple of vehicles prudently parked upwind from the area being burned. A firebreak, looking from the air like a bare dirt road, had been dozed around the area and the fire had already burned upwind and stopped at the firebreak. When I arrived overhead the fire was still slowly progressing upwind toward an area that had been burned previously. Almost definitely a controlled burn.

Still, it is a dramatic sight to see a hot grass fire burn under a large cedar tree and then consume it in a great ball of red flame. A black column of smoke arises through the lighter gray smoke and the heat makes it erupt a ways into the normally flat top of the temperature inversion. Moving downwind that black column of hot smoke rapidly dissipates blending into the gray smoke plume moving down wind. In this case that long gray line of smoke was mixing in clear to the ground and it was what was obscuring the air clear downwind forty plus miles to the McCook area and beyond. Behold the wonders of nature.

I hadn’t planned on being gone that long but through the magic of text messaging Grannie Annie was cheerfully waiting lunch when I arrived back home a half hour late.

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  • Thanks Dick for sharing. You are right on target how nature used fire to control species such as the Red Cedar that is now an invasive species as is the yucca. Mass grazing as the Bison herds did kept the yucca in check and built the soils that now feed the world. Once you start messing with mother nature it becomes a slippery slope.

    -- Posted by dameister on Wed, Mar 22, 2017, at 11:48 AM
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