It starts with a tiny flame, loosed by a drip torch at one corner of the field. A shout of excitement rises up with a billow of white smoke, and the annual Prairie Burn at Green Oaks has begun.
Excitement is running high. Since arriving at about 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon, crowds of students have been eagerly greeting each other with hugs and gathering in small groups. Walking through the crowds, you catch snatches of the songs “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “Ring of Fire”, and, of course, “Light my Fire.” Stuart Allison, biology professor and director of Green Oaks, estimates that at least a hundred students are present to take advantage of the sudden spring weather. It is a record turnout. Last year, Allison estimates about 60 or 70 attended.
Now, we are strung out around the perimeter of a field, waiting for the fire to reach us. Even though the line of flames has only devoured the far half of the field, we can already hear the roar, and a wall of heat hits our faces.
The boy on my right offers his opinion. “Our mascot just got 100 percent cooler.”
The girl on my left has her own sentiment. “Oh my God, I’m so fucking scared.”
There is something exhilarating about the rushing of the fire, its heat, its rich orange tinge. As Allison notes, “I think everyone here is a bit of a pyro.”
However, we students are only armed with a stick and a rag of burlap tied together and a bucket of water. Some of the luckier ones managed to grab the sticks tied to rectangular pieces of rubber. With these, we are to smother the fire when it reaches the perimeter of the field, to stop it from spreading into the wooded areas.
Before we begin, Allison warns us of safety concerns. In particular, we should avoid standing in the center of the field, where the fire might surround us and leave no path of escape. As he notes, it will be disappointing if the fire burns down the barn or damages some of the trees. A death, on the other hand, cannot be fixed.
The fire is now only a yard or two from where we stand. We have fallen back, arms flung in front of our faces. It’s so hot, it feels like our eyebrows are singeing. However, we can’t move back much further; the woods behind us are thick with spiky blackberry bushes.
It dies down almost as quickly as it springs up. In a minute or two, a few flames are licking at the edge of the barren field. Only a mat of ashy vegetation remains–still warm to the touch. The students, all safe and sound, move forward and beat back the few remaining flames.
Green Oaks’ prairies are burned every three years, so every year, a different set of prairie fields are burned. This year, we burn three fields, from East Prairie to the Lost Prairie. The excitement flags somewhat as we trek from field to field, and students begin to drop out and head back to Knox.
However, the burn ends in a bang. Lost Prairie, the last one we burn that day, is undoubtedly the most dramatic. Because it is situated on a hillside, the flames move faster, sweeping up the hill as whirlwinds of ash spring up, and twist off through the woods. A thick cloud blots out the sky, turning the sun to a watery orange and cutting off the light. Suddenly, it’s not hard to understand why hell is typically depicted as a raging inferno. Still, it is impossible to look away; as Allison notes, “Fire is a seductive beast.”
At last, as the remaining flames expire, we trudge exhaustedly back to the parking lot. Still, most seem to be in good spirits, perhaps knowing they have contributed to a good cause. Burning helps preserve the prairie by eliminating the woody vegetation that would otherwise take over. Soon, the grasses will re-grow, and next year, on the first Saturday of April, the crowds of students will be returning as well, to start the cycle over again.