A Spring Prairie Burn

by Dee Hudson Photography

I had a great opportunity to photograph a live fire training exercise at Nachusa Grassland’s 2015 Fire Refresher event. To stand so close to a prairie burn and take pictures all day was soooo exciting and all brand new to me.

Like the crew, first I was suited up in a bright yellow fire–resistant Nomex jumpsuit. The fire crews received first dibs, so when the time came for me to ‘suit up’, there were not many remaining outfits. My suit was made for a ‘tall person’ so I did not make any fashion statements that day, as I rolled up each pant leg about six inches. Thank goodness I was quickly lost in a sea of matching yellow–suited bodies. In fact, recognizing other crew members is very challenging, so every crew member has their name mounted in capital letters on their helmets.

The Burn Boss

Crew boss and crew member names are clearly visible on their safety helmets.

I was told by the Burn Boss to be aware of the moving vehicles at all times. I was instructed not to crouch down behind a truck — basically try not to get run over!

Gwen ignites the prairie grass with a drip torch.

Gwen ignites the prairie grass with a drip torch.

Last year I began to take the online fire training courses in preparation for being a member of the fire crews at Nachusa. However, reading about the prescribed burns and actually participating in them are two different things. I sipped my coffee and propped my feet up while taking the online course. Whereas, in the live exercise, once the fire was ignited with the drip–torch it raced across the dry grass.

A prairie burn.

The head fire towers above the grasses as it speeds across the prairie.

There was no time to stand still as I followed the crew. I tried to advance with the fire crew and was immediately hit by the smoke and heat, so I made a hasty retreat.


For the shoot, I used my Canon 200 mm zoom lens and this proved to be an excellent choice. This lens allowed me to stay well back from the action, yet capture all the details I desired. Even at a distance, the heat from the fire was intense. I had not expected the photography that day to be such a dirty job and I wished I had covered my camera body and lens. There was ash and small particles swirling through the air, with the tiny pieces settling all over my camera and lens.


Fighting the Head Fire

This particular burn was an exercise to review prescribed burn protocols and give crew members more experience in a safer situation, where senior crew members were on hand to supervise, help and debrief.

John oversees a crew member as he works on a spot fire.

John oversees a crew member as he works on a spot fire.


The fire fighter sprays the burning embers so they do not jump back and ignite unburned prairie.

What an exciting shoot! I love the atmosphere created by the fire and smoke. I look forward to shooting another burn in the fall and completing my fire training so I can be on the other side of the camera next time.



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