Monday, January 21, 2008

Newspaper article

Officials: Controlled Burns Help Nature Along

Brooklyn Exponent

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Throughout history, fire has played an active role in nature, either from lightening strikes or as a land management tool of the Native Americans. Many of our ecosystems have evolved over time with fire as part of their life cycle. In recent history, fires have been suppressed, and many invasive species, such as autumn olive and garlic mustard, have taken advantage of man-made disturbances. Reintroducing fire helps restore native plants and ecosystems as well as knock back invasive plants from other countries or other parts of North America.

At the YMCA Storer Camp in Napoleon, another successful season of burning has come to an end. As part of Storer Camp’s environmental restoration program and participation in the Department of Natural Resources Landowner Incentive Program, controlled burns are one of the many techniques used to improve the native ecosystems that draw so many visitors.

According to Glenn King, Vice-president of Camping Services at the camp, environmental education is “a thread in everything we do in a program called ‘Lands for Learning.’” The camp consists of 1200 acres and has 15 unique ecosystems, such as wetlands, prairies and woodlands. First a camper in 1963, then a counselor, and now vice-president, King says, “I’ve had snapshots of what this land looks like. I’ve watched the invasives creep up. I’ve seen what a lack of management can do.”

Storer Camp hired PlantWise Native Landscapes, a company based out of Ann Arbor. The owner of PlantWise, David Mindell, worked with Storer Camp to survey the designated areas and create prescribed burn plans that would meet the restoration goals. The plans lay out all the details in terms of safety, equipment, responsibility, etc. PlantWise has been conducting burns for many years in Michigan for the state, counties and private landowners.

When the vegetation is dry and the weather, humidity and winds are just right, then the burn day arrives. The local fire department has been notified and a burn permit is obtained. The burn crew pulls up in their big, red pickup truck and starts to unload their equipment. Out comes the drip torches full of a mixture of diesel and gasoline that lets the burn crew “paint fire” on the ground. Next are the backpacks with five-gallon tanks strapped to the frames. From the tanks are rubber hoses that lead to brass wands, a kind of tubular squirt gun, that lets the burn crew control and direct the fire. And finally, the pump connected to the 125-gallon tank of water with hundreds of feet of hose, usually kept in reserve.

As soon as the equipment is readied, the burn crew puts on their personal protective equipment. This consists of Nomex (a fire resistant fabric) outer clothing, thick leather gloves and boots, and a helmet with a Plexiglas face shield and a Nomex neck protector. Every burn crewmember also has a two-radio; it is essential to have clear communication between everyone involved. Safety is the most important thing; everyone wants to go home to his or her families. Before the fire is lit, the burn crew walks the perimeter of the burn unit, examining mowed or scraped burn breaks. They also discuss how it should burn and potential problems.

Working in two teams of two, the ignition occurs on the downwind side of the unit, to back burn a firebreak. Laying down a line of fire with drip torches, the teams wait for the flames to separate into two fronts: one slowly creeping upwind, and the other trying to run with the wind. Using their backpack sprayers, the teams put out the downwind edge of the fire, creating a blackened barrier with no fuel (prairie grass, cattails, etc.). Staying in radio contact and constantly checking the line behind them for “jumpers” or other problems, the teams work their way around the perimeter of the burn unit. Once Mindell is convinced that the downwind burn break is secure enough, the corners are turned, and the teams head into the wind, letting the fire spread into the unit and extinguishing any flames that try to cross the fire breaks.

Once the final corners are reached, the fun really begins. If the conditions are safe enough, the teams will quickly lay fire along that last edge and let the wind push a “head fire” across the rest of the unit. Depending on the fuel, the flames can reach 30 to 50 feet, sounding like a freight train. The smoke column can reach thousands of feet into the sky. That’s usually when a passerby calls the fire department, but by the time they get there, the burn is basically over. The firefighters are always very serious when they arrive; however, when they discover what is going on, they usually are envious and say, “Oh, cool! I wish we could do that…”

Then comes the less enjoyable part called “mop-up” or putting out the fire. Usually there are only “smokers” that need a little squirt or a kick from a boot. Sometimes, however, there might be a brush pile that is merrily burning or worse, a “chimney tree.” This is where fire has gotten up into a dead or hollow tree and is difficult to stop. The solution often is to hack away at the burning section with a Pulaski tool (a type of wildfire ax) or cut the tree down with a chainsaw. The pump and hose come in very handy in these situations.

After the fire is out and safe, the gear is packed away, and it’s off to another burn. Sometimes one large burn can take all day; another day might consist of seven smaller ones. Everyday is different, and you never know what to expect!

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