Burn Season’s Late Rush Fuels Teamwork, Learning

By Hilary Smith

March 2012: Strange sights and sounds have met the eyes and ears of this year’s seasonal DNR prescribed fire crew.

Spring peepers sang to us on January nights. Magnolias blossomed before the Super Bowl, and camellia bushes were aflame with passionate, blood-red flowers a full two weeks before Valentine’s Day.

Burning Georgia in winter 2012, a season thus far defined by drought, has been a bit like burning in a growing season. Temperatures are higher; fuels are drier and more receptive to fire, even on days with high relative humidity. For our crew, the most noticeable effect of this year’s drought has been its shaping of our burn schedule.

Dry conditions slowed burning in much of the state through January and early February. Our crew crept slowly toward our burned-acreage goals, struggling to catch up with our progress at the same time last year. In the weeks we could not burn, we swapped fire pants for Carhartts and torches for chainsaws, building and improving fire breaks from Tallulah Gorge to Moody Forest. We had more opportunities for training, attending classes and opening task books to progress toward a more specialized category of wildland firefighter. And we spent a beautiful few days on the coast in Darien and Meridian, cutting exotic phragmites australis—common reed—under the guidance of staff from the Brunswick DNR office.

Our itch to burn was overwhelming. But nature yields to those who wait, and long-awaited rains hit many of our burn units in late February and early March. All of a sudden, the fair-weather-window for burning had opened.

Our five-person crew—one small slice of the diverse and talented Interagency Burn Team—found ourselves scrambling across the state, biting off big-bang-for-the-buck burns of 300-500 acres, working until dark then driving into the night to get to our next burn site with a few hours to spare for sleeping.

It has been a bleary-eyed, adrenaline-and gas-station-coffee-fueled push, colored by the litany of normal firelighter aches and pains: smoky noses, sooty faces, blistered feet, smilax-scratched legs and achy hands.

Luckily, we haven’t faced the fire alone. Tackling larger burns has necessitated larger crews—so on any given burn day, rather than running the show as a self-contained unit of five crew members and our supervisor, we have joined forces with two other seasonal crews, run by The Nature Conservancy out of Moody Forest and Columbus, respectively. DNR biologists, volunteers and state parks staff have rounded out our cadre, adding to the mix their site-specific knowledge and contagious ecological enthusiasm.

Seasonal field work has always yielded fast friendships, and this season has been no exception. Though we compete good naturedly in kickball contests and sometimes haggle over refrigerator space, the DNR and Nature Conservancy crews have bonded quickly and seamlessly. It’s hard not to like a person after you’ve fought a spot fire with him, or mopped up a burn together by the light of dying embers and a headlamp.

Members of our various crews have different levels of experience with fire, and have collected that experience all over the country. Many, for instance, have worked in fire suppression in the western U.S.

A part of the Columbus Nature Conservancy crew came east from their fire jobs in Utah for a few weeks this season. We “easterners” have stared in awe at the Utah boys’ high-tech fire engine, complete with dual hard-line hoses and the capacity to throw retardant foam in addition to water. Learning how to operate their engine was a high point for me on a recent burn.

In general, it has been eye-opening to learn different tips and tricks from members of the other crews, from ignition techniques to guidelines for more effective radio communication.

Burn-days are dwindling for the DNR crew. We leave at the end of March, scattering in all directions. Some of us hope to be back this fall to start another burn season, though the life of a seasonal field biologist is about as predictable as the rain, or a fickle easterly wind. But we have enjoyed to the core this opportunity to write our story in fire, on some of the most beautiful tableaus the state has to offer.

Drought or no, it has been a season to remember!

Hilary Smith is a second-year member of the seasonal prescribed fire crew hired by the Nongame Conservation Section. Here’s her perspective on a winter burning season that has been anything but normal for applying this most effective conservation tool for fire-adapted habitats.

Burning Georgia in winter 2012, a season thus far defined by drought, has been a bit like burning in a growing season. Temperatures are higher; fuels are drier and more receptive to fire, even on days with high relative humidity.