Fire at Big Oaks NWR!
Last Thursday, I (Audrey) participated in the third prescribed burn in the refuge this year.
For a newcomer, burning means setting everything on fire, but there is a lot more to it than just that; something that I learned during my fourth prescribed fire.
You see, when you set fire to something, you need to make sure that you're in fact burning something that you want to burn. If I set a pile of wood on fire in my backyard, I do not want the fire to spread to my house. Same concept is applied here. We want to burn this grassland/forest, not that grassland/forest: "Fire good; Fire bad."
If you know your elements, you know that each element has its opposite. Air is the opposite of earth; Fire is the opposite of water. So what do wildland firefighters use to control fire? You'd think it was a simple guess, and it is, but there is more to it than just putting out a fire with water. Water can be used to prevent the spread of fire. Fire doesn't burn what is already wet. In other words, water puts out fire, but it also inhibits fire growth.
The reason I am saying all this is because this time around I wasn't lighting the fire. I wasn't holding the drip torch, inhaling smoke, driving a UTV, etc. like I was last time at Patoka River NWR. This time around I was, you could almost call it, damage control. Me and another wildland firefighter, took one of the fire trucks (what we like to call engines) and stayed for the most part very far behind the people who were igniting. I'm not going to lie, I thought I was going to be bored the whole time. I was wrong. I got to see a side of prescribed fire that was very different.
The engine is the main source of water; for the UTVs and ATVs, for if a large spot fire flares up, and something else that I will talk about in the next paragraph. (They have a really cool water hose at the front of the truck that you can shoot water out of - you feel like you are in a video game). Anyways, tangent aside. The other wildland firefighter and I were asked to make sure that the fire would not spread under a bridge we were burning next to. We were asked to make sure no trees (specially dead trees, also known as snags) would fall into another unit and spark a fire. We pulled the hose out to wet the vegetation next to the bridge and wet the base of the trees that were smoking. This unit in particular had a decent amount of snags that needed to be hosed down.
Another important aspect of wildland fire (the something else I was talking about) is protecting what is already standing; protecting structures that we don't want to burn. In our case, we wanted to protect some frog pipes that control water levels in ponds that have the famous crawfish frogs in them and the Oakdale schoolhouse. For those who don't know about the school, please visit this page: https://www.bigoaksconservationsociety.org/s-projects-side-by-side. So what did we do to protect the pipes? We hosed them and the vegetation around it with water. What did we do to protect the school? Water. We hosed (more like drowned) the entire school house down with water - especially the wooden roof - and sprayed multiple layers of water on the grass adjacent to the schoolhouse. Once there was enough water (we continued to hose the school down as we burned), we lit the fire in the area around the school that has trees. With hoses in our hands we made sure no fire went on the grass. It was a success! The school is still standing! But fire is destructive - it can take down trees. I was asked to run my hand around the burned area of the trees to determine temperature. If it was hot, it was cut down by a certified firefighter; if it was cold, it was left standing.
I would learn only a week later (this week) in another prescribed fire (yes another fire blog will be coming your way) that this is called "cold trailing": in other words, finding where on the trunk of the tree is it cold and where is it hot.
Once the schoolhouse was deemed safe, we continued to burn. I got to shoot flares into a grassland to help the fire spread (very fun but cover your ears!). Due to unexploded ordnance, we couldn't go into these units to set another line of fire, so we rely on flares. The last task was patrolling and double checking that everything went well. And voilà! Another successful burn; another fun day; another wonderful experience.
Instead of playing with fire, I got to play with water. I now have a new appreciation for water and how it can also be a very powerful tool of defense.
I can't wait for Sarah to join us on fires! She's waiting for the results of her physical and then has to complete a field day and the pack test. She'll be writing these blogs with me soon enough!
Note: I use the words playing and fun but please remember that I am not messing around when I am on fire. I would not be allowed to burn if I was. It's just a way to express that I love participating in prescribed fires. So thank you to the Big Oaks fire crew for letting me join them and teaching me how to be an efficient wildland firefighter!
Protecting the schoolhouse.
I forgot to mention all of the smoke! Picture taken from inside the engine. Can you see the UTV in the picture?
Map of the area that we burned.
Pictures by Audrey M. Basson