Prescribed Fire

Fire crew working a prescribed fire at Reed Bingham State Park.

It has been another successful season for that band of traveling prescribed-fire specialists known as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ seasonal fire crew. In four months, we burned 9,882 acres across the state – in state parks, wildlife management areas, private property, and several sections of the Oconee National Forest.

A major theme for this season was interagency cooperation, as we performed some of our largest and most complicated burns with help from The Nature Conservancy, The Orianne Society, the Georgia Forestry Commission, Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites staff and a network of hardy volunteers. This time around, local volunteer fire departments also joined the cast of characters, bringing their fire-suppression expertise and high-volume tanker engines to the fire line.

Rx Firemen

Members of the prescribed fire crew take a break for a group shot.

While burning on private property, we were treated to landowners’ stories, local knowledge and southern home-cooking. I will never forget a particular moment of delicious juxtaposition when, halfway through a burn, a property owner brought us an entire lemon pound cake, fresh from the oven, and chatted with us while we ate it from sooty fingers and fuel-soaked gloves.

The DNR program has always emphasized training and growth, bringing in employees who are new to fire and training them from scratch, then gradually introducing them to leadership positions and teaching them the nuances of ignition strategy.

This season was no different – I was amazed to watch our rapid transformation from a hesitant mix of three veterans and three eager “newbies” into a synergistic and well-oiled machine. Returning to Georgia for a third consecutive season also granted me some long-sought confidence in this unique and adrenaline-fueled field.

Fire teaches you to think on your feet, constantly adjusting strategies based on minute changes in weather and topography. The greatest lesson fire taught me was to let go of the idea that there is always going to be one right answer, one textbook explanation, one concrete way to proceed in any given situation. Equal parts art and science, prescribed fire requires instinct and patience, not book-smarts.

Seasonal prescribed fire offers a demanding, exhausting lifestyle that leaves you dirtier and smellier than is accepted in most social circles. You learn to appreciate the small things, like gas station cappuccino and showering more than twice a week. And in the end, you walk away with family-like friendships, killer arm-muscles and memories of perfect, smoke-screened sunsets. Proof positive that the toughest work yields the greatest rewards.

Hilary Smith is a third-year member of the seasonal prescribed fire crew hired by DNR’s  Nongame Conservation Section. Prescribed fire is the most effective tool for conserving and restoring fire-adapted habitats that support numerous species of conservation concern.