Earth, Wind, and Fire: Using the Elements to Dry a Field

Last week the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim experienced a rare torrential summer rainstorm that resulted in the Angels first postponed baseball game since June of 1995.  The storm left water standing in the outfield, all of which occurred during a homestand with the Boston Red Sox.  The club opted to call in the service of a Police helicopter to “blow dry” the outfield and rid it of the excess moisture.  It seemed to work as the Angels were able to play their game as part of a rescheduled doubleheader the next day.

I’m sure many of you have heard stories like these in the past, especially from “old timers” who speak of using helicopters to dry a field or setting fire to different parts of the skinned portions of an infield.  A Google search for either will find many examples of such shenanigans to entertain your time.  So, does it really work?  Since I don’t have my own TV Show titled “Myth Busters,” I will have to use some common sense and logic to make my conclusions.

Earth and Wind

Helicopters were the tool of choice back in the day when most pro sports fields were native soil fields. That all changed in the 80’s and 90’s as sand based fields spread throughout pro football and baseball. For that reason, you don’t hear about this type of operation that frequently anymore.  It can also be an expensive procedure by the time you pay for the fuel, the rental of the chopper and its pilot.  But more importantly, weather conditions have to be just so for it to work properly.

Fields dry at a different speed after each rain event.  There are many variables that play into drying speed such as wind, solar radiation levels, relative humidity, soil type, density of turf canopy, etc.  But the one variable that controls the drying process more than anything is the relative humidity in the air.  Each parcel of air usually contains some amount of moisture.  The amount of moisture in that air parcel depends on the temperature of that air parcel.  As the air parcel is heated, the air parcel expands and can hold much more water.  Conversely, as the parcel cools, it shrinks and can hold less water in it.  The amount of moisture in that parcel is measured by the National Weather Service and is reported as the relative humidity which tells you the percentage of moisture in that air parcel relative to the current ambient temperature of that parcel.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 9.00.13 AM

Basically, this means that if you are trying to dry a field by blowing the existing air around to evaporate the water on the surface, then the air with a relative humidity of 50% will dry a field much quicker than a relative humidity of 75% because the air has less space to absorb the moisture that can evaporate.  High humidity air results in slow drying, no matter how much you churn up the air.  Dry air will absorb more water, faster, because of the greater availability of space in the air parcel to take it in.

Conduct an experiment by using a blow dryer to dry your hair after a shower.  If you use the cool or cold setting, it will take much longer to dry your hair than if you use the hot setting.  By heating the air, you increase the capacity of the air parcel which decreases the relative humidity, thus giving it more room to absorb the evaporative moisture faster.  With this knowledge, you can conclude that using a helicopter to dry a field is really only effective if you have a moderate to low relative humidity outside.  Additionally, If you are using a helicopter to dry an infield, you risk blowing topdressing and/or infield soil into your lips on the grass edges.  Consider the cost of this option vs the potential for results.  Everything needs to be just right for success.


This picture is estimated to be from the 1940’s in Missouri.  The article in the Southeast Missourian Paper stated “The game was played on a rain-soaked diamond. The infield was quite soft despite efforts to dry the ground by burning gasoline.” Photo by G.D. Fronabarger, Source: Southeast Missourian

Earth and Fire

Ever since man encountered fire, the human race has been innovative in its uses.  However, I’m not so sure that setting your infield skin a blaze was what our creator intended for its use.  In order to light an infield soil on fire, it requires a fuel to keep the fire going since soil is not particularly flammable or capable of sustaining a fire.  Gasoline and diesel fuel are the likely accelerators here.  The groundskeeper grabs what he has in the shed and douses a portion of the skin area with the petroleum product so they can ignite the inferno meant to drive the evil wet spirits out of the infield skin.  Most of the time this is met with very limited, if any, success.  The heat is not around long enough to evaporate much water.  However, these actions likely result in contaminating the soil and in many parts of the country nowadays, this is illegal.

The ramifications for an organization attempting this kind of a stunt could include being steeply fined and charged with the cost of cleanup and disposal of the contaminated soil by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It is a VERY pricy mistake.  Really, the only way to treat a wet infield is to rely on a good surface grade to drain the field and soak up any excess water in low areas using Beacon Puddle Sponges and calcined clay drying agents.  It’s amazing that I still hear about people doing this today, it’s rare but it happens. Don’t believe the hype folks. It doesn’t work well, it’s dangerous, and it could really cost you in the long haul.

We’ll have more on this subject in the latest Diamond Davincis Podcast due to be released this week.  You can find the podcast on the Beacon website here or download our podcasts from the iTunes Store.

Paul Zwaska (contributor)

A former head groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles, Paul has been a frequent contributor to Beacon’s Ballfield Blog and other resources and products. Among other contributions to Beacon, he authored Groundskeeper University, the pioneering online ballfield maintenance training venue.

Tags: , , , ,