Tuesday of last week I went out in search of some more spring burns to photograph. It was a still day and there were a lot of fires burning early in the day so I thought it might be a good evening for fire photography. I decided that I would drive down to Alma, Kansas via one of my favorite routes, which is Old Highway 18. This is a beautiful drive and I never get tired of it.
The light was really strange early in the evening due to the numerous fires that were going. With the wind relatively calm it was obviously a good day to be burning. The sky had an interesting color to it as you can see in the photograph above. The redbud trees were almost in peak bloom and were really pretty. You can see why this is one of my favorite drives.
I was beginning to think that maybe I had missed all the fires. It seemed like all the pastures I passed had just been burned off like the photograph above. It is hard to imagine from looking at this photograph, but these hills will soon be a lush green and covered with new growth (and it will happen a lot quicker than you probably think!). I can’t wait to return to this area when it greens up and the wildflowers start making their appearances.
About the time I had resigned myself to only photographing smoke (and wondering if it was really true that where there is smoke, there’s fire!), I came across a burn that was just getting started. I was in a perfect location to photograph the fire as it started out and moved across the pasture in front of me.
It was really fascinating to watch how the fire built up and spread across the pasture. Of course this also presented numerous photo ops as the fire quickly changed as it moved across the grass.
After the fire I was photographing had mostly burned itself out, I decided to head back to Manhattan via the MillCreek Scenic Drive. Along the way I stopped to photograph another burn moving across a hillside. It was getting dark at this point which is when the fires really look dramatic.
I made a couple of other stops along the way to Alta Vista. The last burn I stopped to photograph was really beautiful. The light from the fires was being reflecting in the smoke and turning everything a stunning reddish color.
Photographing the spring burns isn’t that difficult technically. Exposures can be a bit tricky if you don’t watch where you are metering light from. I tend to use the spot meter on my camera and if I have my camera in aperture priority mode the exposure can change quickly and be off quite a bit if I happen to meter off a bright flame. It is best to use manual exposure mode and get your exposure set and then start shooting. That way you don’t have to worry about the camera changing exposure on you if you happen to meter off a bright spot of fire. Shutter speeds are important when photographing fire. Fire is moving and like any moving subject you can control if you want to ‘freeze’ the motion of the flames or let them blur a bit with longer shutter speeds.
Burning the prairie is serious business and when you are out photographing make sure you don’t get in the way of the people controlling the fire. If possible, ask the people working the fire if they mind if you make some photographs, even if shooting from public roads. The last thing you want to do is cause trouble for the people that are making sure the fires stay under control. Common courtesy always goes a long way!
If you haven’t ever seen the spring burns in the Flint Hills I would recommend a trip out to see them. There are spring ‘fire festivals’ and places you can actually be part of the burns. It is a unique experience and one that is vital to the continued existence of the Tall Grass Prairie.