Let It Burn
Once a Year, Families and Photographers Flock to the Burning Prairie
The Flint Hills in Kansas boast the largest area of intact tallgrass prairie in North America. They roll across the eastern reaches of the state and stretch south to Oklahoma. For most of the year, few people pay attention to these quiet, beautiful grasslands. Yet, once a year, ranchers gather to set this unique ecosystem ablaze and people come from far and wide to partake in the spectacle.
In April, I travelled to the Flying W Ranch near Emporia, KS to shoot its burn. Fire, smoke, and cowboys all in one place — it sounded too good to be true. I was sold.
The Flying W Ranch has made a spectator sport of its own spring burn. For $100 a pop guests are treated to a steak cookout, a righteous serving of live folk music, and the spectral delight of watching shit burn.
This year, 250 people signed up.
Tradition prairie burns are as controlled as they are well-loved. The only reason these grasslands persist is because the annual springtime burn deters woody vegetation from overtaking the land and spurs new growth. Conservation is key to many ranchers of the Flint Hills as the number of grasslands across the nation continues to shrink.
The Flying W is operated by Josh and Gwen Hoy along with the assistance of a number of ranch hands including Josh’s father, Jim Hoy. Also a folklorist, professor, and Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University, Jim talks to the guests about conservation of the prairie and generally keeps things in line at the burn.
Added to the ranks are Gwen and Josh’s daughter, Josie, as well as a handful of cowboys and cowgirls who aid in managing the burn and keeping guests from going out in a blaze of glory.
Guests arrive in the afternoon. They mill around in anticiaption. Sproadically, they pile into horse-drawn wagons for the tour of the cattle ranches 7,000 acres. Meanwhile, I explore the area and scout locations.
After an hour or so, we’re beckoned and march out into the pasture to begin the day burn. Lined up in a large field armed with match books and rakes, the guests are briefly instructed by the Flying W crew on how the burn would go. Basically, you start at the far end of the field, everyone throws out a match or two, then you rake the fire backwards to evenly spread the flames.
Strike and repeat until there’s no more grass left to burn.
The Flint Hills take your breath away. Gorgeous and pristine. Standing atop the high grounds while lines of fire flickered across the charred horizon was a beautiful sight.
Among the paying pyromaniacs are the usual diehard locals and some weekend adventure-seekers from farther afield. But this is a spectacle and scores of amateur and serious photographers swarm to Flying W to capture shots through the heat, haze and smoke.
Some photographers set up tripods and capture the burn with enormous telephoto lenses. Others shoot and move with smaller gear. Everyone with a smartphone has it in hand.
After the flames had died down, a woman raised her phone and made a selfie in the middle of the charred black field. She was beaming.
The flames now waning, the crowd dispersed and headed back to camp. Following dinner and some musical entertainment, the crew led the guests up a hill adjacent to the lodge for the night burn.
The horizon still glowed with embers and flames weaving paths through the hills off in the distance as the evening light shifted into blues. Within a few minutes, the tallgrass prairie was again set ablaze.
As the night burn wore on, the air hung black and orange and thick with smoke. Slowly, guests drifted off through the darkness and made their way back to the lodge by the light of the burning prairie grass. I stayed atop the hill photographing for a while, immersed in that strange momentary atmosphere without time.
By the time I climbed back down the hill to camp, most of the guests had vacated this temporary wildness. The band struck up again, their rootsy cadence beckoning the pitch black.
A thick must of prairie smoke felt deep in my pores. The burn was done and so was the night.