04 March 2009

Do Not Try This At Home

My feet hurt! Today was the annual refresher course at the Indiana Dunes for wildland firefighters. As part of the refresher each year, those who are interested in obtaining or maintaining a Red Card (the qualification necessary to fight fire with a federal agency or on federal land) must take the pack test. This involves walking three miles with 45 pounds on your back in 45 minutes. While some people specifically train for this event, I've never really had the motivation to do so. I like to test my baseline physical fitness by not training in any way... instead just going out there and doing the best I can on that day. Maybe someday this will catch up with me, but for now, I'm still able to do this. I passed by completing the hike in 42:03... and only two blisters to show for it!
While I have never "fought" fire, part of my job involves participating in prescribed burns. Prior to the 1900s, fire was an integral part of maintaining many of our natural landscapes. Some fires occurred naturally as a result of lightening strikes; others were set by Native Americans to keep the land open so that they could see potential invaders, as well as to improve wildlife (= food) habitat.
With the turn of the century came the severe suppression of fire from the landscape. This has led to big changes in the vegetation composition of our natural systems. Without fire, shrubs and trees encroach on prairies; savannas become forests; fire-tolerant oak-hickory forests transition into climax beech-maple communities. In addition, organic material has accumulated into a dense ground layer, in turn leading to larger, more destructive fires when they do occur.
A realization that fire is a beneficial and natural aspect of our natural history has initiated the activity of prescribed burning in many natural areas and landscape restorations. Fire helps by promoting germination of plant species that are adapted to fire, as well as keeping out invading woody species that are fire intolerant. Burning with a good plan also reduces the organic matter that can lead to catastrophic wildfires.
Although burning is just a small part of my job, it has to be one of the most exciting aspects of my work. Translated: fire is just cool.


Justin said...

That was by far one of the coolest posts I've ever read! Both the writing and the photos were outstanding. I could practically hear the fire cracking, roaring and hissing its way through the fuels. I especially like the burning Eastern Red Cedar photo. Take that, you unwanted tree! Dana's dad cut that tree down and is going to make toys for Eli out of the wood.

Scott said...

Thanks, man. Glad you enjoyed it. Good to hear that the cedar is being put to a good use, other than just being a candle.

beetlesinthebush said...

This post so makes me want to take part in a prescribed burn some day!

Scott said...

Aside from the ecological benefits, it's a lot of fun just to watch the flames roll across a prairie landscape. Knowing that you're doing good for the ecological system just sweetens the deal.