Prairie Fires: Can a Controlled Burn Act as a Natural Process and Make Biochar as Soil Carbon?

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Prairie Fires: Can a Controlled Burn Act as a Natural Process and Make Soil Carbon? 

Wildfires were and are still common in the North American Prairie lands, and the flowers and grasses that make up this amazing ecosystem evolved as a result. For those that live in prairie regions, controlled prairie fires are a sign of spring.  Non-native plants are burned away during each burn, giving prairie species more nutrients and space to develop. Because prairie plants have deep roots and develop from a place underground, they can withstand fires. In prairie restoration, a prescribed burn is essential. As this is a burn process, there is resulting carbon. 

The resulting soil carbon from a prairie burn is not exactly the same as the biochar ARTi produces. This type of prairie fire is a key element producing this incredible type of soil  referred to as Mollisols. ARTi delves more deeply into this topic in a previous blog. 

Please see our blog on Mollisols linked above for more on the soil benefits of both Mollisols and carbon addition from fires “pyrogenic carbon”. ARTi’s CEO Bernardo del Campo had the chance to observe a controlled prairie fire overseen by a natural prairie fire management specialist Craig Anderson and his team. The photos here show this event.

Controlled Prairie Fires must take into account, i. e. type and amount of fuel vegetation,  Air Temperature, Relative Humidity, Wind Speed and Soil Moisture (Burn Your Prairie Safely, Prairie Nursery, Neil Diboll, 2022)


Natural prairie fire management

Can you have your own prairie and why would you want one? No fertilizers, fungicides, or herbicides are needed in prairie meadows. Birds, butterflies, and other beneficial animals benefit from the prairie grasses and flowers, which provide excellent habitat. A properly placed and maintained prairie meadow is a self-sustaining plant community that will add beauty to your landscape for decades. It is possible to establish your own prairie but, of course there are a number of points to keep in mind. There are five key steps to establishing your own prairie. Selecting a sunny site with low-weed density is first, second is choosing prairie-friendly plants, next is preparation which means getting rid of the weeds, then choosing your planting time. Lastly, ongoing prairie maintenance which means mowing and burning. (Five Steps to Successful Prairie Establishment, Neil Diboll, 2022)

Where controlled or wildfires have converged with biochar has tended to be in topics related to dead or invasive plant matter. This fuel vegetation can beneficially feed controlled fires or have a negative impact as in the case of fueling wildfires. Biochar projects have been conducted to make use of such fuel vegetation, whether focusing on the lessening of dead plants or the ridding of invasive ones. However, as we examined in our article on Mollisols, something akin to biochar can be made during the course of a prairie fire. Mollisols, which so far are viewed to have been increasing soil carbon content through the addition of natural fire carbon, leave the soil richer in carbon content. The question is if a material such as biochar, made through pyrolysis  can have a comparable effect in the soil. If so, a low-cost and multi-use method of lessening fire risk, reducing emissions in comparison to prairie fires, and at the same time improving prairie lands and capturing CO2 as soil carbon or biochar could be an option.

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