The distant ridgeline is black as coal. Thin vertical columns of smoke from burning logs rise up 200 feet in the air before flattening out horizontally, forming a series of capital letter T’s. Clean, smooth lines following the topography’s contour, like an artist’s paintbrush, separate the burned from the unburned. The smell of smoke is strong in the cool morning air. I can imagine the headlines – “Twenty Five Acres of Woodlands Destroyed by Fire.”
This was no wild fire, but rather a prescribed fire, intentionally set by a trained crew in an effort to restore an endangered ecosystem – an oak savanna. Nonetheless, to many in the public, all fire is bad, and the backlash can be intense. After performing hundreds of prescribed fires, it’s the dread of public backlash that hangs on me the most. It was foremost on my mind yesterday as I notified the local dispatch of our intentions to burn, and it continues to weigh on me this morning as I walk the burn unit boundaries to ensure myself once again that all is well. Containing the fire is the straight forward part, dealing with public complaints is not.
What is a prescribed fire or controlled burn? We don’t control fire. We control the perimeter of the burn unit, like zoo bars contain a tiger. Ever mindful of fire’s ability to throw fire (embers) outside of its cage. Fire, reinforced by its allies - dry fuel, driving wind and uphill slope – constantly probes, prods and tests its man-made confines. The burn crew and its allies - water, no fuel, downhill slope and resistive wind – work together to ensure that fire cannot escape. Like the large apex predators of yesteryear, fire can no longer run free.
I step into the black of the burn unit. Small plumes of ash rise skyward around the perimeter of my feet. The ground is mostly covered in black ash, with shades of white and gray scattered about. Several dead telephone-pole-size trees are burning like upside-down incense sticks. They died years ago, victims of invasive Dutch elm disease.
On top of an old ant mound I find a dead Dekay’s brownsnake. I assume it was killed by the heat. We do our best to burn before reptiles come out of hibernation, but sometimes early-risers are killed. I see movement and find a second brownsnake peeking out a rodent hole in the abandoned ant mound. Communal hibernators, there’s likely many more in this ant mound hibernaculum. Symbolic of fire, some individuals will perish but their species thrives because fire maintains high-quality habitat. Another reminder we must find peace with the circular path of life and death.
I ascend to the top of the ridge and find hundreds of single-strand spider webs highlighted by the morning sun. Each web is attached to a tiny charred sapling whip. Is this some kind of ballooning event for migrating spiders, I wonder? As if someone turned on a switch, the warmth of the sun has brought critters out in force. Several chipmunks scurry off. Moths are flying about. Spiders and mites of various sizes are crawling over the charred ground. Birds are everywhere.
While there are patches of unburned fuel scattered around, fire removed most of the leaves, grasses and dried vegetation revealing the contour of the ground. The scars from the heavy hand of humans are apparent - an old plow line with a second plow line 30 feet above on the slope; deep terraces carved into the hillside by the hooves of thousands of cattle; strands of partially buried barb wire and decayed steel T-posts; occasional pieces of junk even after many years of clean up; pot holes the size of small rooms dotting the ridge top. Could it be excavations of limestone or lead or perhaps it dates older marking the work of Native Americans?
I find new diggings revealed by tan-colored sand covering the blackened ground. In my mind, I can see the badger, throwing a rooster tail of sand 20 feet into the air as she excavates a den site. She knows that very soon this hillside will have many thirteen-lined ground squirrels feeding on the succulent new growth. It will be a good place to raise her cubs.
I lean against a large bur oak and stare out at a stream of cars traveling the distant highway. Rural commuters making their way into the big city. I know that world, I muse, for some mornings I’m traveling on that highway too. But it’s the world I’m standing in now that’s captured my soul and heightened my humanity. A world that has quietly slipped away as generations of us have gone about living our busy lives.
Fire merges the two worlds together. While I see an ecosystem reborn, others may see danger, destruction, or a threat to their world view.
While some may take notice of the picturesque, open-grown oaks in a park-like setting, the real beauty can only be experienced by standing under the oaks’ wide-sweeping limbs. The ancient oaks connect us to our past. Thousands of plant and animal species busily going about their lives reminds us of our earth’s amazing biodiversity. There is order, energy and wisdom here, set in place by a hand more powerful than any human’s. There is celebration here.
In the growing season to come, an amazing wealth of beauty, known to so few of us, will rise from these ashes.