BURNING UP THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE IN THE KANSAS FLINT HILLS

FLYING W RANCH | FLINT HILLS, KANSAS

[KANSAS FLINT HILLS] — In the middle of Kansas, the breadbasket of the US, lies the Flint Hills — hundreds of thousands of acres of tallgrass prairies, open rangeland with very few trees, even less fences and the best grazing land in the country.

The Flying W Ranch and the Clover Cliff Ranch in Chase County, Kansas has put on this cool shindig with their cousins and neighbors since ’96. Called Flames in the Flint Hills, they attract a couple of hundred people from all over the country every year.

Flying W Ranch Family

Do they need all these city slickers to help them light the prairie on fire? No. But they started this as a way to spread their ranching heritage, educate about this centuries-old practice and are crazy enough to let fire-crazy people like me light the fields afire.

 

The Flying W is a 7,000 acre working cattle ranch, with about 50 horses, hundreds of cattle, bunkhouses for guests and cool events all throughout the year.

Every summer, ranchers ship cattle from as far away as Texas to fatten up on the thick grasses of the tallgrass prairie that we’re about to help regenerate for the upcoming season. Not from corn, grass. As it should be.

Cattle will put on several pounds a day eating all that thick tallgrass, which is loaded with mineral-rich nutrients from the flinty soil. Some say this is the best beef in the world. All because of this magical stony soil. Flying W will host about 2,000 head of cattle every summer, here, like us, to eat up the good stuff.

Flames in the Foothills is an all-day event, people can stay in bunkhouses on the ranch, in nearby towns and B&Bs, then come Flame Day, everyone heads to the Flying W for all-day events, music, storytelling, barbecue, hayrides and two big prairie lighting events that last late into the night.

This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, I highly recommend it. Book now, it usually sells out long in advance.  These cowboys choreograph this thing like a bunch of Frenchmen… it is magical.

Here’s some more info in this great article from the Chicago Tribune. And the Nature Conservancy, who are doing an amazing job here. And the Kansas City Star.

 

Flames in Foothills fire at night

It was all so disorienting. All our lives we’re taught to fear fire. “Stomp that fire out!” “Put those matches down!” “That candle’s going to burn this whole house down!” “Stop, drop and roll..” “Forest fires, raging across the state!” And yet here we were, to light things on fire. For good. The night we arrived in the Flint Hills and checked in, we were all so giddy for the next day, we couldn’t sit still. And then we saw the flames pop out of the dark distance. We squealed like little kids, grabbed the big kids’ cooler and ran outside to watch. In awe. First, the orange glows started small, like a flare, then grew fast around the ridge lines of nearby hills, popping up everywhere between the close trees. Soon, great walls of orange lit up the distance, like one big fire fence. It was all so eerily quiet, all that hell brewing over there. We grew silent. Nothing but distant wails of trains to break the awe. “Beer me!”

 

Flying W Ranch lighting fire

It makes you giddy, really. They hand you a rake and a box of Flying W matches and you head out into the field. During the daytime, they do a test fire in a small field to show everyone the proper techniques… and how not to light yourself on fire. Freeing, it was. To do something you were always told not to do. “Hurry up, get that other patch goin’ we want a clean line all the way down to the creek.” We had permission. Hoohahaha…

 

 

CLICK ON THE PICS BELOW TO KICKOFF THE SLIDESHOW

 

 

Flying W Ranch Hoy Family

 

Flying W Ranch Family

And just like that, it’s over. With wind, in 5-7 minutes this whole field went. And then went out. Just like that. Now, ready to grow back strong. Our job here is done. On to the next burn…

 

Nighttime Prairie Burn at Flying W Ranch

Flying W Ranch fire lighting

We were absolutely giddy pyros…all 200 of us. Grinning, lighting and snapping pictures.

Flying W Ranch group fire lighting

Flying W Ranch dusk fire

There’s actually a technique to lighting things on fire, we learned. You throw the match to get things jammin’, then you take a rake (provided) and drag that business around, Picasso-like, all over the ground. It gets busy, fast. The stuff lights up like it has gas on it… because, well, it’s fire. (Don’t try this at home. 😬) You monitor your perimeter and don’t go willy-nilly draggin’ it around — you don’t want to burn up your friends. And you’re trying to look like you got it for the cool cowboys (and cowgirls!) My buddy @marktarry with the rake, a famous art director, mastered it instantly, like he always does, painting pictures with big broad strokes of fire, coloring inside the lines.

 

Flying W Ranch fire line

Looks like a reverse lava flow. But it’s Kansas. Instead of the earth having acid reflux, we did this.

Flying W Ranch riders in flames

 

 

Flying W Ranch patriarch

Maaan, these horses are cool. You often see “fun horses” — on trail rides, your rich friend’s hobby, pulling a carriage, in parades. You always hear about horses easily getting spooked, but these are “working horses”, they’re used to cutting cattle, snake-steppin’, bison-scootin’ and fearlessly taking on anything. Almost like a Kansas version of Street. The way they calmly moved in and out the flames was just so cool. Fearless. Strong. The real deal. That good looking, stoic cowboy from Central Casting is the patriarch of the family, Dr Jim Hoy, a PhD, college professor, author of nine books, expert in Medieval English history, the Australian outback and a cowboy folklorist, especially about these Flint Hills. He was just honored as Kansan of the Year, you should see his cool Facebook page….

— Last Visited March 2015 — 

 

Flying W Ranch flaming sign

And as we all leave, choreographed like a Frenchman did it, all the hills were ablaze as we drive back to our hotel, torched hilltops leading the entire way, for miles.

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