When I got back to my room yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find my face covered in black soot. My eyes still stung from the smoke and my cheeks felt slightly stiff from so many tears drying on them under the intense heat of fire. I put down my camera, which had been damaged by either smoke or heat, and took off my blackened Nomex jacket, which smelled strongly of burnt palmetto. I had participated in my first controlled burn.
I should back up. Over millions of years, Florida wildlife has adapted to survive frequent wildfires started by lightning.
Many scrub species die off if their habitat isn’t burned often enough. Gopher Tortoises are one example of an animal that needs open areas in order to survive. Florida Scrub-Jays are another.
What I was helping Archbold Biological Station do yesterday is called controlled burns or prescribed fires. These burns simulate the natural fires that used to occur in Florida and prevent our habitat from becoming overgrown. After hearing that there would be a fire this week at the Station, I took my safety training and signed up. Working on controlled burns isn’t part of most Environmental Education Internships, but is a great added bonus that Archbold offers, and I didn’t want to pass it up.
Our day began with a planning meeting. Dr. Shane Pruett, who works in Archbold’s Avian Ecology Research Program, briefed staff from Archbold and a burn team from The Nature Conservancy on where the burn would start, where it would move, where the safe zones were, and who would be responsible for what.
After a lot of running around gathering radios, helmets, tools, trucks, etc., I climbed aboard an old military truck and rode out to our burn site. Once everyone was set up, Dr. Pruett, our burn boss, lit the first blackline with a drip torch.
A blackline is created when we burn the downwind border of the burn unit (the area we are going to burn) and the flanks. By burning the downwind side, the fire only travels about 20 feet into the burn unit. These blacklines are extremely important to controlling the fire because black areas can’t catch fire again. Later on, the blackline acts like a fence that keeps the big fire, called the headfire, from spreading outside of the burn unit.
To light these blacklines, we walk along the downwind border of the unit, creating a line of fire with a drip torch. Drip torches are like heavy metal watering cans, but instead of drizzling water they drizzle a mix of diesel and gasoline that passes over a flame. The result is a can that spits fire when you tilt it downwards. Pretty cool.
Because of the wind pushing against the fire, the blacklines don’t usually advance far enough to make a safe border. This means that we have to go in behind the blackline to light another strip of fire. This is the most challenging part, which is why we sent Dr. Reed Bowman in, who has a lot of experience burning.
I have a lot of respect for people who light strips. Imagine pushing through thick bushes with a fire slowly creeping towards you!
After Dr. Bowman was back safely at the truck we had our next bit of excitement. We were chatting with Dr. Pruett when Dr. Bowman suddenly shouted, “SPOT!” We turned and saw that a fire the size of a kiddie pool had erupted on the wrong side of the fire lane. Everyone sprang into action. Dr. Bowman drove the truck up to the fire, Dr. Pruett grabbed a hose, and I ran around cluelessly. Before long we had put out the rouge fire. Spot fires are fires that start outside the burn unit, usually caused by embers that get blown across the fire lane.
After we had finished making the blackline, we got to sit back and watch the real show: the headfire. This is when we set a fire on the upwind side. As the wind pushes the fire towards the blackline it grows in size and intensity. We watched and listened in awe as a wall of flame that sounded like a windstorm slowly crept towards us.
Once the headfire had swept through the burn unit, all that was left was to drive around in our fire truck and shoot a powerful hose at parts that were still smoking. This I liked very much.
With our burn completed and safely put out, we enjoyed the sunset as we drove through the twisting sandy lanes back towards the Station.
Controlled burns play an important role in land management and research at Archbold. You can read more about fire at Archbold here: http://www.archbold-station.org/html/land/firemgt.html
Written and photographed by Evan Barrientos – Environmental Education Intern at Archbold Biological Station