[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.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The post was from a visit in 2015. During the pandemic Flying W shut down their guest ranch and are now solely focused on their sustainably-raised grass-fed beef business. You can read about it here. ]

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…


Flying W Ranch Hoy Family
Normally when people see fire, they panic. But out here, it’s all under control and a way of life.
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.
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

This is when these awesome Kansas cowboys (and cowgirls!) have stagecrafted this whole thing like they were French. After a marvelous steak cookout under the cottonwoods by the creek, we all march up the cow trails to a high pasture, right as the sun was setting, down to the minute. The light, perfect. Backs to the wind at the far edge of a pasture, we get to work; lighting matches franticly, like Leo for his life in The Revenant. Instantly, a line of fire trailed down to the sunset. People side by side, grins, ear to ear.

Just to keep us on our toes, the ranch’s hands start off on distant hills and get another fire going behind us, surprising us to see yet another fire…just for our visual benefit.

I mean, these people choreographed this whole thing like closing ceremonies at the Olympics. The French ones. After lighting fires all day, eating some nice steak and having the time of our lives, as we were driving out to go home, all the neighboring hills were on fire, for miles. It was jaw-dropping.

Centuries before Burning Man, there were men, burning.
Fields of grass, not weed.

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. The way they calmly moved in and out the flames was just so cool. Fearless. Strong. The real deal. That 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.

— 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.

More Information on the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

If you need a place to stay, the Clover Cliff Ranch is a fantastic B&B. I typically don’t like B&Bs, but the owner Susie is an amazing host, lived in New York City for a while and is wicked smart.

Here’s a great article on Post Rock Country and using limestone for everything, including fenceposts. If you like this sort of thing, you should plan in advance to do the Burning Up the Prairie events in early spring, here’s a post I did on it. And a great post from the Travel Kansas website. If you’re thinking of going to the Preserve, here are some details on your visit. There’s a pretty decent restaurant in nearby Strong City called Ad Astra. Pretty great for a small town.

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