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Tossed Out

Field Notes: Using drones to capture a prairie burn

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Brendan Gibbons uses a drone to capture the controlled burn at Tucker Prairie near Kingdom City, Mo. (Scott Pham/KBIA)
Brendan Gibbons uses a drone to capture the controlled burn at Tucker Prairie near Kingdom City, Mo. (Scott Pham/KBIA)

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

All that’s left of Missouri’s “Grand Prairie” – which once covered a good chunk of the state – is 145 acres called Tucker Prairie, which can be found about 25 miles east of Columbia.  Each spring, the state conservation department burns parts of the prairie to bring nutrients back to the soil and remove woody growth from the native grasses.

Scott Pham, content director at Harvest Public Media partner station KBIA and a group of University of Missouri journalism students went to Tucker Prairie to experience the controlled burn first-hand earlier this month. And they took a drone with them. I asked Pham to describe what he saw:

They're very specific about the area they're going to burn. And what's cool about it is they kind of etch out this rectangle by mowing down this area on the outside and it stays pretty much exactly where they want it to stay. When they're done, it’s this big black rectangle that's just kind of randomly out there in the middle of nowhere. One of the things that surprised me, too, is it seems like a really chaotic thing. The fire will sometimes get very high and very smoky but there’s less than a dozen people out there using not much more than rakes to stamp out the fires and keep them controlled. And they're really good at it. They were a lot less worried than I was.

The students on the trip are part of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, which has partnered with KBIA to cover rural and environmental stories like the prairie burn with drone photography -- footage taken by a video camera attached to a drone.

“Our drones are remotely piloted unmanned vehicles that are very small -- maybe about a foot-and-a-half across,” Pham said. “They have four propellers and they can carry a small camera. So we use that to get way high above the land and try to photograph what we're seeing and get the whole context of the shot.”

Pham is the director of the program and won a $25,000 grant to fund it. But not everyone’s so enthusiastic about journalists using drones to help illustrate their stories.

Responding to farmers who have expressed concerned about the drones flying over their land, Missouri Republican State Rep. Casey Guernsey, who chairs the Missouri House Agri-Business Committee, introduced the “Preserving Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act,” earlier this year. The Missouri House of Representatives gave initial approval to the bill, which would require individuals and groups in the state, including journalists, to get consent from landowners before flying drones over their land.

But Pham said while he plans to keep an eye on the legislation, he didn’t think it would affect the Missouri Drone Journalism Program’s work. That’s because the bill permits drones to be used above land where the property owner has given permission.

“We’re doing stories on public lands. We’re doing stories about the environment and agriculture,” Pham said. “Though I understand that in the future this is something that's going to have to be taken into consideration.


Video Dispatch

Go behind the scenes and watch how the reporters captured this story

Flying Through Fire: The Controlled Burn of Tucker Prairie from Jaime Cooke on Vimeo.