Smoke and Flames

Yesterday evening, I arrived back in St Louis after a week-long stint down in Winona on Fire Rotation with the USFS (Mark Twain National Forest).  There, we assisted the USFS on two large prescribed fires, the Pineknot and Miller/King Burns (4,125 and 4,684 acres) and did another small burn out operation (10 acres) yesterday along the Miller/King Unit to complete the unit.  We returned exhausted, worn out, yet excited and smiling because we were happy.  The week was successful.

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Fires are, and will continue to be, a mystery to most people.  When we hear of wildfires and prescribed burns, many people think of the destructive fires out west that ravish the countryside, leaving black scars through the forest.  Our brains jump to the fires that consume buildings and homes and leave us mourning the fallen.  It’s natural.

We fear fire.  As we should.  It’s dangerous.  It’s destructive when out of control.  And one can never truly control a fire.

In the days leading up to these burns, our team helped to manage the fireline, cutting out snags and reducing the hazards that could cause these fires to become unmanageable.  We were a part of a team of 30+ USFS, Park Service, and Law Enforcement personnel that gathered to conduct these prescribed fire operations.  2 dozers.  3 engines.  9 UTVs (5 Kubotas, 2 Gators, and 2 Razors with Drip Torches).  A helicopter for Aerial Ignitions and scouting.  Holding Crews.  Ignitions.  Traffic control.  Contingency plans. We were a militia of personnel that were constantly moving.

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(NOTE: The above photograph was taken a couple weeks ago during a prescribed fire with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  The other two photos were taken this week on the Pineknot (below) and Miller/King (above) Prescribed Fires.)

I’ve been on a number of fires (wildfires and prescribed) through my adventures, but I have never seen a machine work as efficiently as these men and women this week.  Yes, it was chaotic.  Yes, there were setbacks and unseen hazards.  Yes, we had a small slop-over on our line and a spot fire.  But people knew what needed to be done and nobody was injured.

We left the fires each evening knowing that they were secure.  Smoky beyond belief in some spots, but the fire was going nowhere.  They made sure of it.

All fires have the potential to become monsters.  One spark is all it takes to leave a forest in ruins.  We’ve seen it hundreds of times before.

Through prescribed fire operations, we can manage the forest and provide some safety for those who follow.  For too long, we have suppressed fires, leaving us vulnerable to the high levels of fuel loadings, deadly fires.  Through management, we can reduce and remove these fuels, creating a protective barrier for those who enjoy being in nature.

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Fires are natural.  Without them, we wouldn’t have the forest that we enjoy today.  And as I looked back through the smoke as we departed each day, I knew that we were doing a good thing.

It’s an adrenalin rush.  We joke about eating smoke and lighting off these contained fires.  But in the end the simple truth is that, while we may not see it, we are protecting lives and property from the next big fire-storm.

It’s coming.  We’ve all seen it.  Over the past several years wildfires have gotten worse because of our aggressive suppression of a natural process.  We should be afraid.  But we should trust in the teams of firefighting personnel who use prescribed fire to manage our forests.

Smoke may be a inconvenience, but it’s better than having flames lick your feet as you run for your life.

Just some thoughts….

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