Burn­ing for you

Pre­scribed fires help the en­vi­ron­ment if done cor­rectly

The Covington News - - Agriculture & Outdoors -

As the ve­hi­cle lurches vi­o­lently to the side be­fore once more straight­en­ing out to con­tinue the climb up the old, rut­filled log­ging road, you tighten your grip and start to won­der why you are here. The an­swer: to burn. It is a beau­ti­ful March day at Sprewell Bluff Nat­u­ral Area, just out­side of Thomas­ton and near Sprewell Bluff State Park. Tem­per­a­tures are in the 40s, but the sun is shin­ing, last night’s rain is only a me­mory and the breeze is light; per­fect con­di­tions for a burn.

The Ge­or­gia De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources’ Wildlife Re­sources Di­vi­sion con­ducts pre­scribed burns on state lands as well as some pri­vately owned lands. The process is an im­por­tant tech­nique used by wildlife and forestry man­agers to stim­u­late the growth of grasses and forbs, set back the growth of small trees and shrubs, im­prove ac­cess, pro­vide habi­tat for threat­ened and en­dan­gered species, en­hance pop­u­la­tions of fire-de­pen­dent plants and an­i­mals, and re­duce high fuel lev­els that can con­trib­ute to dan­ger­ous wild­fires.

Par­tic­i­pants quickly re­al­ize it is also a re­ally great learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and a lot of fun.

Highly trained teams work from an ex­ten­sive burn plan that lays out crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion such as weather con­di­tions in­clud­ing hu­mid­ity, tem­per­a­ture and wind speed, plus safety con­sid­er­a­tions and nearby smoke sen­si­tive ar­eas. A burn boss, some­one thor­oughly familiar with the burn unit and with con­sid­er­able burn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, de­cides when to try the burn, as­sem­bles a crew, briefs them on the op­er­a­tion and com­mands the pre­scribed fire. Some pre­scribed fires are very small, only re­quir­ing two to three peo­ple and min­i­mal equip­ment. Oth­ers may re­quire as many as two-dozen peo­ple, ATVs, wild­land fire en­gines and even he­li­copters.

This burn team is made up of about 12 peo­ple, a com­bi­na­tion of DNR and The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy (TNC) folks, all ex­pe­ri­enced burn­ers. The burn boss is Nathan Klaus, a DNR wildlife bi­ol­o­gist. The des­ti­na­tion, called the unit, is a 550-acre par­cel of old-growth lon­gleaf pine for­est, some of the old­est in the state. The land is so rugged, some ad­ja­cent private lands have to be burned as well. A fire plow can’t make it down th­ese steep slopes – slopes that were prob­a­bly re­spon­si­ble for spar­ing the trees when the area was logged. Klaus has de­vel­oped a long work­ing re­la­tion­ship with ad­ja­cent landown­ers, and most now trust him enough to say, “go ahead and burn my land, too.”

The burn team gath­ers in a clear­ing best reached by ATV or 4-wheel drive ve­hi­cle. Ev­ery­one checks his or her gear. Ra­dios are handed out and wa­ter bot­tles filled. Ev­ery mem­ber of the team wears flame-re­tar­dant cloth­ing, boots and hel­mets.

They gather around to re­ceive a map of the unit and the stan­dard brief­ing that takes place be­fore any pre­scribed burn. The unit is clearly de­fined and the team must take care to make sure that only the area within the lines is burned. Safety is key.

The team di­vides into three groups, each with a leader. Two of the groups will go to op­po­site sides of the unit and be­gin set­ting the fire with drip torches, work­ing their way to­ward each other. The last group will stay with the truck, which is full of wa­ter and will be used to “hold” the line, mak­ing sure to put out any er­rant flames that may jump across.

The team cruises up and down the line, paus­ing each hour to check the weather con­di­tions, re­lay­ing them to Klaus and record­ing them for later re­view. It is im­por­tant to keep a check on the weather be­cause a shift in wind speed or a sud­den drop in hu­mid­ity can dras­ti­cally change the be­hav­ior of the fire, pos­si­bly en­dan­ger­ing the crew. To­day, the weather is co­op­er­at­ing.

Ra­dios chat­ter back and forth as the work is quickly and ef­fi­ciently com­pleted. Burn­ing is very pre­cise. The smoke is thick and ob­scures vi­sion so ver­i­fi­ca­tion of po­si­tion by way of con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion is im­por­tant.

Rid­ing an ATV he nick­named “Mean Green,” Klaus uses a flame-thrower for faster ig­ni­tion. It looks like a wild ride, but safety is never far from his mind and he stops fre­quently to check ra­dio con­tact with his team.

Once the flames get go­ing they burn away from the line search­ing for fuel. They will not go back over an area that is al­ready burned. This is why it is im­por­tant to burn the line around the out­side of the unit. It makes con­tain­ment of the fire that much eas­ier.

At times the flames shoot high into the air be­fore set­tling back down. The smoke is vis­i­ble for miles.

The sun is set­ting but the teams con­tinue work­ing, switch­ing on head­lamps as they go. As the groups move to­ward each other from op­po­site hill­sides, the sight is truly in­cred­i­ble. The fire lines zigzag down the moun­tain in the dark as if drawn with a crazy glow­ing crayon. The hold­ing team stops to ad­mire the view from the top.

Af­ter meet­ing up at the bot­tom, the teams climb back up the smok­ing hill­side to their ve­hi­cles, tired from a long af­ter­noon of burn­ing but pleased with the re­sults. Mem­bers de­brief as ra­dios are si­lenced and hel­mets packed away. The drip torches, ex­tin­guished, are loaded onto the fire truck.

Sin­gle-file, the trucks pull out of the clear­ing to once again bounce and lurch down the rocky path. In the dark the burn lines are clearly vis­i­ble trac­ing the route along the old log­ging road. Stumps smol­der in the night.

Day one of the burn is com­plete. Klaus and a smaller team will re­turn the next day to com­plete burn­ing the in­te­rior of the unit. An­other day, an­other fire. Busi­ness as usual for this crew. But the black­ened ar­eas will soon show new plant growth and the fire ecol­ogy cy­cle will con­tinue.

(Ques­tions about pre­scribed fire on private prop­erty? Con­tact Wildlife Re­sources Di­vi­sion Nongame Con­ser­va­tion Sec­tion of­fices in Forsyth, 478-994-1438, or So­cial Cir­cle, 770-918-6411. The Nongame Con­ser­va­tion Sec­tion pro­vides lim­ited as­sis­tance with pre­scribed burns on private lands where re­quired for restora­tion of crit­i­cal habi­tats or rare species pop­u­la­tions.)

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