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Friday, March 24, 2023 — Houston, TX

Rice on fire: Prairie Plot reborn through controlled burn

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Riya Misra     2/28/23 11:34pm

Rice’s Crisis Management team supervised a prescribed burn at the Prairie Plots, a 10,000 square foot plot of prairie garden on the south lawn of the James Turrell Skyspace, next to the Shepherd School of Music, on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Prescribed burning is a common practice and involves intentionally setting a controlled fire to maintain prairie vegetation. Maggie Tsang, an assistant professor at the Rice School of Architecture who created the installation, said that the Prairie Plot was installed nearly a year ago to reduce maintenance efforts for the previous turf grass.

“We’ve seen [the Prairie Plot] go through various seasons: the drought, as well as intense growing seasons into the fall and through dormancy in the winter,” Tsang said. “Part of the intention of this prescribed burn was to show how, rather than having regular mowing or maintenance and irrigation of the space, it really only requires a simple annual burn.”

Tsang said that the prescribed burn has been in the works for a few months, requiring collaboration from people and departments across Rice, including Risk Management, Crisis Management Team, the Arboretum Committee and Facilities Engineering and Planning.

“It’s the first time in recent history that we’ve done a prescribed burn, so it was really trying to understand the institutional measures and safety measures that needed to be in place so that we could conduct this burn safely,” Tsang said. “We collaborated closely with the Houston Fire Department, as well as Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to understand the various weather and climate factors that would be optimal for a safe burn.”

Jerusha Kasch, director of Institutional Crisis Management, said that CMT was present during the burn and implemented safety measures to keep burn personnel, nearby buildings and the Rice community safe.

“We [established] a secure perimeter during the burn, and RUPD [was] posted to keep onlookers clear of any danger,” Kasch wrote in an email to the Thresher. “We [maintained] alternative traffic flow – namely closing sidewalks for pedestrians and prohibiting parking for vehicles – throughout the area.”

One of the largest challenges when planning the burn was finding a set date, according to Tsang. A successful prescribed burn depends on a number of factors, including dryness, wind and humidity, which are difficult to predict in advance.

“One of the interesting things about planning for a burn is that there’s quite a lot of contingency,” Tsang said. “It’s hard to plan around uncertainty … It’s not easy to pinpoint an exact date, and that sometimes can be at odds with the planning and scheduling at a university-wide level.”

On a larger scale, Tsang said that the prescribed burn served two purposes: to maintain the natural vegetation of the land and also to keep the Rice students informed about natural ecological cycles.

“It’s important to realize that there’s a seasonality to these landscapes,” Tsang said. “My hope is that the Prairie Plots grow that awareness, even if it’s not so super direct.”

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