Prescribed fire is a topic that can range from modelling smoke plumes to gauging how much controlled burns reduce the risk of wildfires. But what can be lost in the science is the restorative power and the beauty of prescribed fire.
Here’s the take from two members of DNR’s southeast Georgia fire crew this year.
Burning the Rocks
By Ani Marty
I first burned at Broxton Rocks Preserve when I was a Student Conservation Association intern in 2017. This 1,650-acre site is maintained by The Nature Conservancy in southeast Georgia near the town of Broxton. The preserve is best known for Altamaha Grit, a layer of sandstone that has been exposed for centuries and offers a unique ecosystem and home for many rare and endangered species.
Burning at “the Rocks” is something to be experienced and something I’ve grown to appreciate since my first burns there. It’s different from other properties I’ve burned with DNR. There’s an ecological history at Broxton Rocks, an old one, that generation after generation has taken part in to create the preserve we see today.
The preserve’s longleaf pine savanna is exciting to see, and even more so for a trained eye. While my first burn inspired me to continue working with fire, work there now offers a different sort of vision.
After that first burn at Broxton Rocks, the next couple of fire seasons were mostly spent working in areas where fire had been suppressed for decades. Fighting with a drip torch and a tool through the unforgiving southern rough to give the longleaf pine ecosystem a chance to bounce back, I saw spans of wiregrass. When I returned, areas burned before had changed. What had been a single clump of wiregrass overrun with gallberry had grown into a patch that could hold more fire.
With every burn, there was rebirth and a slow rebuilding, the flicker of a recovering ecosystem.
Now at the Rocks, we return to burn a place that doesn’t require us to coax the flames to spread. In the heat of June this year, we only needed to drag a line of fire along the longleaf savanna. Working with The Nature Conservancy and Orianne Society, I got to light and then sit back and watch the savanna take control.
The fuel animated the fire, guiding it where it needed to go – dancing along the grit, flitting from pine litter to wiregrass. The black left behind was sharp and clean, ready for the next cycle of growth, a promise that what once was can be again. And a reminder of how much a little fire can do.
Beauty of Night Burns
By Ben Grunwald
There is nothing quite like a night-time burn. This is partially from a purely aesthetic point of view.
The pines lit by moonlight above and the flickering orange below. The crackle and roar of flames punctuating the quiet of night. Not to mention the satisfaction of seeing your firing patterns in the dark and watching them do just what you wanted.
Yet night burns are also a fantastic display of prescribed fire’s versatility as a land management tool.
In May, we were lucky enough to burn through the night at the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, which runs along the Ocmulgee River in south Georgia. Pulling off large-scale burns at night can be hard. The weather must be just right, with good winds and low humidity throughout the night. Plus, folks aren’t usually looking to end their shift at 4 a.m. But conditions this time were perfect and Georgia Interagency Burn Team members from The Orianne Society, The Nature Conservancy and DNR crews showed up (although we kept separate for social-distancing purposes).
Burning after dark also presents unique hazards compared to daytime operations. Firefighter watch-out situations such as “in country not seen in daylight” suddenly become very real and dangerous scenarios. However, with a solid briefing, communication and a buddy system, everyone felt comfortable.
Considering these complications, it might seem like an odd choice to even try for a night burn. However, that night’s fire made it clear how useful these burns can be. The unit my crew lit was a pine flatwoods with a four-year rough and patches that hadn’t been burned in even longer. The weather had been hot and dry the previous week, setting up the volatile palmetto and gallberry fuels for a potential blow-up. Burning the unit in winter would avoid these issues, but it wouldn’t achieve our ecological objectives.
Carrying out the burn at night in May gave us the best of both worlds. The cool night air helped moderate fire behavior, while we still made a significant impact for habitat restoration.
Everyone stayed safe, the fire effects were impressive and, of course, the fire was beautiful.
Ani Marty led the southeast Georgia fire crew, and Ben Grunwald worked as a crew member.