“The old grassland remnants usually contain dozens of plant species that are not very tolerant of plowing and require long periods of full sun conditions, and groupings of these plants are easy for a botanist to see,” said Devin Floyd, founder and director of the Center for Urban Habitats in Charlottesville. “The reason the fire is important is because for most of the last 8,000 years, fire was a normal and regular occurrence in our region, and in some areas the fire return interval was as great as two to three years. What that did was allow for long periods, and perhaps even hundreds or thousands of years, of open-space conditions. The ongoing sunny conditions and lack of plowing allowed for diverse prairies and savannas to establish.
“Grasslands cannot persist if forests replace them. Grassland plants require lots of sunlight, and the ecosystem that results is the one that supports at-risk and endangered species such as the monarch butterfly, the northern bobwhite, the North American bumblebee and countless other grassland species. Without Piedmont prairies and savannas, the thousands of animals that depend upon them cannot survive.”
Floyd was clearly visible, even in the thickening smoke, in his bright yellow shirt of fire-resistant fibers and his bright hard hat. Floyd drizzled fire from an igniter carrying a 50/50 mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline onto a heavy thatch of dried grass. He started a stream of fire in the thatch, letting it burn for a few minutes. He then walked several feet away and started another stream of fire, and he let the wind push the second stream toward the first. After a few minutes, he started a third stream.
The grass popped as it burned and the whiteish smoke rolled upward from the flame to dissipate into the clear blue sky. Small, orangish tongues of flame flickered in the blackened ash of the burned thatch.