The continuous progression of barren, plowed fields pass by as I make my way by car to the next job site. I’m tired, my sinuses raw, and I can’t escape the smell of prairie fire smoke outgassing from my clothes. Off the highway now, advancing up a driveway, the landscape morphs from drab brown fields into vivid copper and gold colors of little bluestem and Indian grass respectively. Black-capped chickadees bounce around excitedly in a nearby wild plum thicket. A rabbit pops out of the tall prairie grasses, temporarily freezes when it sees the approaching car, then pops back into the safety of the prairie. Parking the car, I notice a snappy step to the three burn crew members loading gear into a truck. I take a closer look. They’re young, I think, I wonder if they are students? I’m intrigued to learn their stories, but for now, I have a job to do.
The favorable burn window is short, so I dive right in with burn objectives and strategies. Once everyone is comfortable and understands his or her roles and duties, we put fire on the ground.
The flames’ heat feels good in the cold December air. The fuel is bone dry, and the fire and prairie grasses “pull” to each other as if bound by a strong magnetic force. I radio the “west” line to hold and give the “south” line time to “put in more black,” or burn out a larger area to contain the fire. The tall grasses explode in towering flames. I position myself to have a clear view of the firebrands (bits of hot ashes) raining down over unburnt prairie outside of our burn unit. Sure enough, a tiny flame of fire leaps to life in the grasses. I’m close, and proceed over to extinguish it, but one of the young crew members beats me to it. “Way to be alert,” I say, “are you a student?” “Yes,” she says, “Environmental Sciences and Mandarin language studies.”
I move on with my duties but take a moment to imagine her future. As the U.S. government steps back from global environmental leadership, China will certainly step forward. I see this young woman, educated in the world’s strongest college system (the U.S.), providing guidance and working with Chinese leaders to help resolve the horrible environmental conditions the Chinese people face, and possibly reducing China’s impact on global air pollution. I feel a little smile form as the thought gives me hope.
I’m back on the radio talking to the “west” line. The line crew needs to temporarily split into two teams to safely contain the fire in some complicated topography. I watch as another young crew member holds the fire line as her colleagues put in another fire line from a steep ridge top down toward her position. . With the two “west” fire lines now merged into one, and the fire safely contained, I take a moment to compliment her actions. “Are you in college?” I ask. “Yes,” she says, “Landscape Architecture.”
I imagine her working out West with community planners, designing a wildlife-urban interface landscape that promotes the beauty of the fire-prone natural landscape while protecting the homes and safety of the nearby communities. Or maybe she’ll choose to work on the East coast, transforming the beach-front landscape to conserve the dynamic beach ecosystem while insuring safe refuge for the nearby beach communities. Perhaps she’ll choose to focus on restoration ecology, helping practitioners like me do a better job in rebuilding rare natural communities. My smile gets a little bigger.
I quickly let go of my thoughts to focus on the next obstacle at hand. The “south” line is about to enter an area of rough terrain where the fuel is heavy, and the fire breaks not well secured due to difficult access. I say to the young man shouldering a water pump. “The two of us are going in to secure the line. I will light the back fire, and we both have to knock down the rear flame front with our water pumps as quickly as possible, I say. “It’s going to be really hot with little air to breathe!” Minutes later, it’s all over, and the line is secure. As the young man steps out of the smoke for fresh air, I compliment him on how well he performed and ask “what’s your story?” He tells me he just graduated in the field of zoology.
Once again my mind briefly drifts, imagining his future. I see him studying fire-evolved ecosystems, specifically the endangered tallgrass prairie, addressing head-on the plethora of unknowns we restoration practitioners face every day in our attempts to restore these postage-stamp size prairie remnants. Perhaps he’ll unlock many of the mysteries regarding the complex relationship of fire and its impact on fauna species such as insects. Maybe he will discover previously unknown fauna species or discover unknown species-to-species relationships that are key to a healthy prairie. My fire gear feels just a little lighter now.
With darkness closing, we wrap up the prescribed burn with the grand finale head fire. Roaring flames reach into the sky 30 to 40 feet, launching showers of glowing embers into the distant darkness. I allow myself a brief moment to revel in its beauty, experience its power, and respect its potential terror before returning to my burn responsibilities.
As I walk along the downwind fire breaks looking for any signs of fire that may have escaped its confines, I think about how the struggles of restoration practitioners are analogous to a “controlled” burn. We have had some impressive successes, learned much along the way, but the ecosystems we manage are still dangerously close to the precipice. And, like a controlled burn, if one hot firebrand goes unnoticed, it could be the start of a “symbolic” wild fire resulting in the loss of these ecosystems forever.
My mind returns to the three young fire crew members. I know their roads forward may not be easy in the fields they have chosen. My wish for them is that they will always have the strength to navigate their paths ahead steering with their hearts. And I hope that many of my, and other practitioners’, efforts will provide a solid foundation from which to launch their journeys.
For a few brief moments today, I had the privilege to see the future through the “perceived” eyes of prospective natural resources professionals. It gives me hope, strength, and a belief in the next generation!