Fighting the Fires

An Ecoburner’s View

By Shan Cammack

July 2011: My regular job is anything but regular. As fire management officer for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, I wear a number of hats. My focus and expertise is wildland “firelighting” for rare species: In other words, I set fire. As a part of this, I write and review burn plans, hire seasonal fire crews, train and refresh staff and volunteers, work with interagency partners, maintain and buy fire equipment, write grants for funding, and conduct and monitor prescribed burning efforts across the state. I help lead a very unique team we call the ecoburners.

My skills and equipment make me useful in other endeavors, as well. To safely set fire, you have to be able to control fire. Therefore, when the Honey Prairie complex in the Okefenokee Swamp and the Satilla Summer Fires near Waycross raged for weeks this year, it was appropriate to call on the ecoburners to help relieve weary firefighters. These and other DNR staff have served this effort in a number of important capacities, from delivering food and supplies to firefighters, to providing law enforcement and security, Type 6 engines to help fight the fires and even fuel for bulldozers.

There are no small jobs. Every cog in the wheel has its place in the Incident Command System, or ICS. It was fascinating to watch the incident structure grow from about 25 people when I arrived to more than 200 by the time I left. ICS is well-suited to keep things organized as operations become more complicated.

Serving as an engine boss on a large incident is not as glamorous as it might sound. Yet, there are times of excitement and danger – like when the fire escapes the control line and bears down on a house you’re protecting. One of the most poignant moments of my two-week tour was defending a house on the Racepond Fire. The fire raged across Ga. Highway 122 and bore down on us. Helicopters were dropping buckets of water so that bulldozers could safely plow around the edges to capture the escape. My fire truck, Ember, and crew stood at the house next to a Type 1 structure truck, both ready to spray water when the fire got close.

It was difficult to watch the kids and grandfather waiting anxiously on the porch while the parents hurried to and from their car carrying their most prized possessions and valuables. I can’t imagine what thoughts were going through their minds as they saw a crown fire approach their home. Fortunately, the wind changed and this house, along with most others, was saved.

I also remember one day sitting at a church waiting for the day’s assignment when a couple pulled in and thanked us profusely for saving their house. They had been on vacation when the Sweat Farm Again fire broke out. They at first had no idea if their house had survived. They were relieved to find it safe and secure when they returned.

Most of the time, the engines are in mop-up mode. This means they come in well after the head of the fire, working along lines the bulldozers have pushed and improved, putting out any of the small lingering fires. These are long dirty days, digging up hot spots or burying them with sand and spraying and stirring water, sometimes thousands of gallons in areas with organic soils. You use your limited water as creatively as you can. When you run out, you leave the fireline and head for water tankers strategically placed nearby. Thanks to all those volunteer firefighters who patiently waited at tenders to refill our engines.

To give you an idea how dirty things can be you often have to change your engine’s air filter on a daily basis!

Mop-up is laborious but important. Any ignition source within a wildfire area, such as a burning stump or smoldering peat, can potentially start a reburn or an escape. A reburn happens when fuels within the wildfire ignite. The fuel can be shrubs dried out but not fully consumed or needles that fall to the ground from scorch from the original fire. A reburn can cause another escape, which is when a fire leaves the control line. Engines have to constantly patrol and monitor all control lines and anticipate and catch any escapes. Crews have to be ready for a big fire to break out at any time.

Training reiterates the safety measures that all wildland firefighters must take: LCES. Always have a Lookout who knows where the fire is and where the firefighters are. Communication is key to report on fire activity and dangers. Escape routes and Safety zones are essential and constantly changing.

It’s imperative that every firefighter is aware of these in case the fire threatens them.

One of the most difficult things for an ecoburner serving on these wildfires is seeing the environmental damage caused by catastrophic wildfire and subsequent control measures. While controlling these wildfires is necessary, methods such as wide plowed lines, “potato patching” and foam have lasting environmental impacts. Indeed, these wildfires outside the swamp must be stopped. Their intensity is such that forests and plantations are destroyed, houses and personal property are threatened, air quality is compromised, and public safety is jeopardized.

The fire in the swamp is a different beast: It is a natural process burning under mostly normal fuel loads. The fact is that most ecosystems in Georgia have evolved with fire and need fire to remain healthy – just not at this intensity. As natural fires have been suppressed and prescribed burning has faced more challenges, dangerous fuel loads have built up. The result can be devastating. This was a hard lesson learned in the 2007 Okefenokee fires.

This year, strategic firing operations around the Okefenokee to contain the wildfire have been successful in keeping the fire in the swamp and reducing damage to surrounding uplands. South Georgia forests will burn: This is an ecological inevitability. It is much safer if humans choose the day because often Mother Nature chooses an extremely hot and dry day. The more prescribed burning we can do in our state, the healthier the forests will be, the cleaner the air will be and the safer the public will be from the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Shan Cammack is fire management officer and a natural resources biologist and with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.

My regular job is anything but regular. As fire management officer for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, I wear a number of hats. My focus and expertise is wildland “firelighting” for rare species: In other words, I set fire.