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By Natalie Bruzon
Watching your property burn is not something anyone hopes for.
Unless, of course, you started the fire.
Ron Crumly, owner of Crumly Land and Cattle, is one of hundreds of landowners who uses prescribed fires to control the invasive eastern red cedar tree population on his properties.
Last spring, one of his fires lost control.
“When we did our burn line we came up to that border then we went east over to that corner, and the fire was advancing that way,” said Crumly about the fire last spring. “I don’t know if the wind got a little way and the wind switched to this direction and switched west. There’s a field of CRP right over there, CRP is government set aside acres that the grass is really tall, but anyway it’s really a tinder box. It’s just all this tall dead grass. So we had a big wide lane here but somehow a spark from in here from a tree pile or something that burned floated over and fell on that and it started it on fire. We had to call the fire department and they always come and help. And we got it put out right away over there. But accidents happen.”
Out of control fires are always a risk with burning fields, especially since, as Crumly reiterated, the wind isn’t always predictable. However, according to Crumly and to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), the benefits far outweigh the risks.
“I maybe did the first burn 35 years ago,” said Crumly. “We have been constantly trying to cut cedar trees, burn cedar trees, mow cedar trees for that long a time period.”
PRESCRIBED FIRES are one of the most effective ways to control pest growth on properties. For Crumly, it’s been an instrumental way of keeping his land clean and at full-capacity for cattle.
“Normally you can run seven cows to an acre for cattle production,” Crumly explained. “In (an overgrown place), I bet it would take about 15 to 20 acres to support a cow because you don’t have any grass underneath all those trees. So you’ve lost 70% of the grazing ability of that pasture. We don’t want our pastures to get to look like that.”
For Nebraska cattle ranchers, running an operation has become increasingly expensive as production prices rise and revenue falls.
“Running pasture is expensive. Like I said, we’ve spent tens of thousands dollars on tree removal. Just the property taxes alone on this land are $40,000 a year,” said Crumly. “Of course that helps support the schools, the fire department, so we pay a lot of expenses to managing a ranch.”
Although prescribed burns can be expensive, Crumly said that in the long run it’s the most cost-effective way to keep his land productive.
“We will probably be able to increase the amount of cattle per acre by 10 to 20 percent as a rule after you’ve burnt and got the cedars cleaned out,” Crumly explained. “That makes a lot of difference as far as making the payments on land and making those property tax payments.”
According to Crumly, prescribed fires can cover hundreds of acres of land, although he usually burns between 100 to 200 acres at a time. Landowners sometimes hire a professional, but for Crumly the expense and timing inconvenience isn’t worth it.
“The guys who do it professionally, it costs about $30 an acre to get the guy from Broken Bow to come here and do it for you,” Crumly said. “I know the outfit that comes in from California, they just charge $5,000 a day no matter what. And they have a lot of people in those crews and a lot of machinery.”
Crumly said he usually has a team of three to six people helping with burns.
“We have three four wheelers with water tanks on them, we have a pickup with a water tank on it and that’s the main water sources that we have,” Crumly said. “You try to go slow and use the wind to your advantage but sometimes winds change sometimes fires create their own wind. So it’s not always easy to keep it under control.”
As a member of a small community, Crumly understands the strain on a volunteer fire department, and says his team takes every precaution possible to keep their fires controlled. Furthermore, high taxes on lands and donations contribute to the local community.
“If things go wrong, then we a lot of times have had to call the fire department to come and help us and that’s always a little bit of an issue because it’s a volunteer fire department,” Crumly explained. “And these guys take off from their jobs to come out and help you do your work that wasn’t an accidental fire, I set the fire. So it’s kind of touchy, but we try to contribute heavily to those fire departments. We make regular donations to try to help those guys out with buying equipment and pay them for their time.”
THE NGPC ENCOURAGES landowners to use prescribed burns as a way of controlling their land, and according to Crumly plan on burning a section of Ashfall Beds State Park early this spring to control an overgrowth of cedars.
They also hold regular workshops around the state for landowners.
Pheasants Forever and the NGPC will be hosting a basic prescribed fire training at the UNL Extension Office in Neligh on Wednesday, Jan. 18. Workshop speakers will discuss how fire can be used to benefit the land manager’s objectives and give a step-by-step breakdown of how to safely plan a prescribed fire.
The workshop will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A $10 registration fee covers all training and training materials, refreshments, and a noon meal. Attendees are asked to please pre-register to reserve a meal.
According to Pheasants Forever Biologist Ryan Lodge, the reasons for learning to use fire are adding up.
“Many Nebraska landowners feel they are losing the fight against invasive eastern red cedar. Fire is a cost effective and economical way to control cedar trees while also maintaining the health of your pasture,” said Lodge. “Wildlife that favor open grasslands, like pheasants, bobwhite quail and grouse are also enhanced when trees are controlled.”