The Fall Burn

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Today the serious rain is falling. We’re headed back to our 100 acre RX burn for the first day of a 50 ft. perimeter mop. It’s pretty much all a one-day-at-a-time ordeal in fire, as the weather changes constantly, changing fuels and the environment. Whereas yesterday I figured if we didn’t get any rain today, it would be a solid 8-9 hours of mopping up, who knows now. Maybe some cat naps, my co-pilots’ iPod from high school, and a whole can of Copenhagen. In park. Out of the rain. Somewhat dry. Either way, I’ve got a Filson jacket and I’ll be ok.

The preparation for this burn was frustrating. Instead of preparing for multiple days, it was ok’d last minute by the bigger whigs who dictate our lives that we would burn. So everybody started acting like Y2K was coming. Oh my god! Oh my god! In the process some of our teams dignity was tarnished. The big difference between prescribed fire and a wildfire is the timeframe for planning. Because the Burn Boss, one of the Firing Boss’s, the FMO, and a handful of others had previously attempted to burn this unit 3-6 times in last 12 years, I think they approached the whole thing with a skeptical non-committance (some of the stated amount of attempts were contradictory, but the gist of what I heard was a shitload of times with no success). The approach was sort of like “yeah, we’ll go out there and throw some hose around, fill up some pumpkins, put in some lats, and maybe probably not even burn it”. This mentality made the prep work feel bush league.

After a day of being reamed for an overall cluster fuck for organization, we were brought on the clock a couple hours early to get on the hillside. As we briefed we were given the background for the burn, the why we were doing this project, and the specifics. Who was Burn Boss, who was trainee, holding, Firing Boss’s, and firing teams. Condition of fuels. Weather.

Our test fire “fell on it’s face”. The higher moisture content up top, combined with lower sun and tight canopy from the Dougs and Cedars, appeared to be the “pack-it-up, we’re-going-home” queue’s the skeptics had in mind during the prep work the day prior. Regardless of two bad test fires, we decided around 12:45 to continue, hoping our slow strips on mediocre faith would put us into lower, drier, holy ground of receptive fuels.

At about 3pm, being only a lat or two down the hill, our efforts were in question. 100 gallons of slash fuel had been laid down to burn roughly 15 acres. Were we thwarting success? No. We were firing according to fuels. We were doing the work necessary to achieve proper consumption. That didn’t matter. “If the fuels won’t take it, move on. This shit is getting ridiculous.” Indeed. And we did.

But we had terrain, slope, fuels, and weather in our favor to make good progress. The humidity dropped, the ground was crunchier, and our fire became alive, stood up, and wandered around more. It’s natural curiosity for the surrounding environment meant we could put down less fuel, move faster, and put some ground behind us. We were going to make it – at least half way – and that was the goal.

The plan was to fire off at least half the unit, hang it up, and let it back down overnight. We’d return in the morning and pick it up, bringing it down to 100 yards above the road. Because the downhill side below the unit was some cliffhanger/brush-monkey shit, we were especially concerned about fire getting in there. By stopping 100 yards up, the idea was to let it back down overnight. The issues we started encountering were the troubles any prescribed fire practitioner finds: hazards, heat, and finding a good balance between meeting objectives and minimizing exposure. Our fire took too well in places, so we adjusted our patterns. Snags above, having taken fire, began to fall. With daylight gone, we called it – hiked to our respective east or west lines, and called it a night.

The following day, we felt good. We knew what we were dealing with, were familiar with some of the ground and the fuels. And we were 60 percent complete; the home stretch was upon us. The main difference we found between the top half and bottom for the unit, was the fluctuations in topography. Up top it was mostly a steady sidehill, but down low lots of drainages and ridges appeared, making the complexity increase. We had to to fire off certain aspects one piece at a time, rather than a generic sidehill, to generate proper heat and draw the smoke in, up, and away from our line. At times I felt like I was bordering between an artist and a maniac. Standing below a well lit hillside, watching each drop from the drip torch get sucked into the influx winds, having a sense you’re a part of the overall creation of this magnificent creature, is incredible. You feel powerful and alive.

We made it down, hung it up, and each stared into the darkness with hamburger feet and cramping muscles. Since the burn objective was a natural re-introduction of fire, we’ve just monitored it. And with rain today, the past few days disappear, like a flame turning to white ash, then just going black over time.

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