Jeff Seago, State Forester, Iowa DNR: This short grass and mid grass prairie ecosystem is really what defines the Loess Hills and the topography you can see it just dropped down 200 feet to the highway and then we've got a different ecosystem on this side of the hill as opposed to the the forest ecosystem on that side and the diversity is is the key to the Loess Hills.

Rising above the Missouri River Valley in Western Iowa, a series of rolling hills slope high over neighboring farm fields. The cluster of silty soil known as the Loess Hills is coated with prairie grasses. And today, this section of Loss Hills State Forest is set for a highly coordinated controlled burning operation. 

Jeff Seago, Forester, Loess Hills State Forest: ...Assist the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in implementing their forest stewardship plan. So they've got primarily a Burr Oak forest with some raised ridges of dry, shortgrass prairie. What the plan calls for, maintaining those remnant native grass ridges and then running maintenance fires through that oak timber to try and preserve that oak forest so we can hopefully regenerate it at some point in the future. 

In early spring, teams of fire personnel gather for annual training and real world exercises. 

Chad Graeve, Pottawattamie County Conservation: So on this division we have simultaneous ignition coming from both ends and we have holding issues throughout. 

A mixture of fire teams young and old, experienced and newcomers, fan out in strategic positions to safely ignite acres of Loess Hills prairie grasses. Team members use drip torches to control fire as well as constantly monitor wind direction and velocity. Once the flames gather fuel in the form of prairie grass, the ignition can be dramatic. 

On some hillsides, the heat begins to create its own wind upslope, driving smoke and flames towards peaks. 

From a drone's eye view, you can see the Loess Hills before and after flames have reached the upper hillsides. 

Below at the roadside, fire teams are lighting protective berms to prevent the flames from threatening the public. 

Back on the hills, some fire team members are utilizing flare guns to ignite remote corners of the prairie and continue the controlled operation. 

Jeff Seago, State Forester, Iowa DNRThe most interesting thing is a few days after a fire you'll see it start greening back up. It goes from black and looks like a nuclear bomb went off, there's no life at all. A couple of months after the fire your prairie grasses, depending on the season the warm season or cool season, plants really start to come racing back. 

Our vegetation all came back. One of the things that you can look for is when you look down there's no leaf litter, there is nothing on the soil surface, almost all of it was consumed. The current thought process is that the duff layer, which we have none of right here because we consumed that with a prescribed fire, the duff layer actually causes the plants to produce shade leaves and then when they get broken through that there is full sunlight. It takes the plant a while to respond so that opening that ground up, warming that ground up sooner, exposing it the full sunlight does have a significant impact on the rate of growth of the grass. 

So any cedar tree that's over four or five feet tall and we can't kill with the prescribed fire, cedars are susceptible, we're going to have to cut those down with a chainsaw. When we get them to torch when they're big like that, that's a tree that we don't have to cut down. The reason why we cut them down is because they produce shade and if we get too many cedars on one location they can shade the entire prairie out and then we've lost it. So eliminating some of those cedars or, most of those cedars, is important to maintaining this prairie ecosystem.

Gilchrist Foundation