Getting fired up

John Majerus of Cedar Rapids worked on his first prescribed burn this spring as a new member of the 3-year-old Central Nebraska Prescribed Burn Association. He and eight other members conducted the burn on a 30-acre native pasture owned by Pete Berthelsen of St. Paul.

At a glance

• The Central Nebraska Prescribed Burn Association covers five counties.

• More local associations are forming across Nebraska.

• Their goal is to eliminate invasive species and improve grass.

In return, several members aided Majerus when, a few weeks later, he burned a 70-acre Conservation Reserve Program field to get rid of eastern red cedar and to knock back brome and reinvigorate native warm-season grasses.

“That’s why I joined the association,” he says. “It only costs a $25 membership fee, and members help each other with the burns. With a prescribed burn, I didn’t have to disk and could save on fuel costs.”

The Central Nebraska Prescribed Burn Association covers five counties — Howard, Sherman, Nance, Greeley and Merrick — and has more than 60 member landowners. “This is the fourth burn season and, as of early April, 32 burn plans had been approved for 2010,” according to Shawn O’Conner, association president from Greeley. “Last year, we had 30 burns on about 2,000 acres.”

O’Conner’s group is one of six local prescribed burn associations that Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever helped form in Nebraska in the past few years, and more are expected to form in 2010. “There is additional landowner interest in the benefits of prescribed burns,” says Berthelsen, who is state coordinator for Pheasants Forever.

Improving wildlife habitat is a big reason behind PF’s efforts to form local associations. However, the organization and landowners also conduct burns to improve the quality and health of pastures and rangeland. Fire sets back encroachment of cool-season grasses such as brome and stimulates return of warm-season grasses, and it allows wildflowers and forbs to come back, benefiting wildlife. On Berthelsen’s 30 acres burned this spring, there are more than 150 species of wildflowers that benefited from red cedar control and elimination of brome.

Berthelsen lists the three biggest limitations to conducting burns: Knowing how to conduct a burn, lacking prescribed burn equipment and having enough manpower to do a proper burn. These are hurdles that local associations can overcome.

The first is resolved through workshops held each winter by PF and other agencies, including the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Nebraska Environmental Trust, and the Prescribed Burn Task Force. A dozen were held in early 2010.

When a local association forms, it receives a Mobile Prescribed Burn Unit, a two-wheel, enclosed trailer that holds a wide assortment of tools and equipment, including two 200-gallon skid sprayers that slide into pickups, drip torches, fire swatters, rakes, two-way radios and protective clothing. PF provides the trailer and equipment from funding it receives from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, plus the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife program, local Pheasants Forever chapters and the Nebraska Bird Partnership.

There are six units in the field today.

Through the training, members learn, among other things, how to obtain a required local burn permit and the necessary safety procedures.

Task Force

One organization, formed in 1994, provides training workshops and demonstration burns. It is the Nebraska Prescribed Burn Task Force, and it includes landowners and agency members primarily from Buffalo, Custer, Dawson and Lincoln counties.

For information on forming a local prescribed burn association, contact Pheasants Forever at 308-754-5339 or e-mail Pete Berthelsen at


PRE-BURN BRIEFING: Pete Berthelsen provides a rundown of weather conditions, field characteristics and crew assignments before a spring prescribed burn was begun north of St. Paul.


STARTING IT UP: Kraig Beck of Cotesfield (left) uses a drip torch to start the back fire. Brian Buss creates a wet line so the fire doesn’t back up.


HEAD FIRE: Shawn O’Conner, association president from Greeley, lights the head fire.


WEATHER UPDATES: Pete Berthelsen checks temperature, wind speed and direction, and relative humidity as the fire begins.


TO THE FINISH: Just before it dies out, the prescribed burn head fire on Berthelsen’s native pasture reaches the blackened area of the back fire.

This article published in the June, 2010 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.