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Burn Baby Burn

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Posted on June 2, 2014 by Sarah O’Shea ’11, animal biotechnology and conservation.

Courtesy: Sarah O'Shea '11 Sarah O'Shea '11 is burning land as part of a conservation project.

Thanks to Delaware Valley College, I had two opportunities to burn land as part of a conservation work! The first was on Cinco de Mayo and we helped with a prescribed burn at Jake E Williams Preserve on The Nature Conservancy’s property. 

This preserve is unique because there are not only freshwater lakes, but also alkali lakes! Yup, saltwater lakes in the middle of North Dakota. We are managing the land for piping plover (a small bird) habitat. Around the lakes there is a rocky shoreline and it is being encroached upon by the surrounding grasses. So, we are trying to use fire to reduce the grasses and allow the rocks to stay for use as nesting habitat. The unit was 75 acres, grassland 2 (fuel model), and winds were coming from the southeast. The burn went smoothly, started from the north side and broke into two groups. It is amazing how quickly the fire moves across the land. I was wet lining (putting down a line of water along the mowed break, to keep the fire inside the unit) and turned to look up and the fire was halfway across the unit. My boss mentioned that it may have to do with the salt in the water, apparently this preserve always takes off like a bandit.

I went from my biggest fire at 75 acres to 2,700 acres in a mere week! I had the opportunity to burn with the federal government at Theodore Roosevelt National Park! It was absolutely amazing! There were 40 people for this fire and I was the only woman, but that didn’t worry me. I was assigned to interior ignition. I was placed on a team with two others who were both firefighter type 1. I'm a type 2 currently so, I felt comfortable walking into the middle of the unit with them.

There is so much to say about this burn, I felt like a real firefighter from walking into the bluffs of the Badlands with drip torches in either hand to walking along a ridge top and making sure my team was moving at the same pace. I was walking up and down bluffs and crossing streams.

To conserve on fuel, since there was no place to refuel, we only put down a drop or two in an area. I was standing on top of a ridgeline and noted that the hillside we just walked over was barely lit. So, I continued moving forward and making sure both my team members were safe. All of a sudden, it sounded like the ocean. I turned to look behind me and the entire hillside was engulfed in flames. The wind had carried the flame right up the side of the bluff and it roared with the hunger of a fire. 

It was so much fun, but that fire got hot with a capital “H!” There were a lot of cedars and junipers along the small single dirt path that we lit off of. As I was putting fire down, it become so hot that I really felt like the skin on my face was going to melt off. Don't worry, it didn't. 

By the end of the day we finally sat down in the grass waiting to do mop-up or anything else that needed to be done. I was on my feet from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and when I sat down in the grass, my exhaustion caught up with me. I actually think I took a 20-minute or so long nap. The sun was beating down on me and I was hot in all my fire gear, sweating, but it felt so nice to rest. 

The weather forecast for this week looks good; hopefully we will get to do more burns. Until then enjoy the warm weather on the East Coast and elsewhere.

Happy Trails,

Sarah O'Shea ’11

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Having worked on a few prescribed burns at TNC preserves in the (distant!) past, I know how much work goes into preparing and executing them. Stay safe, Sarah!

Posted by Lynn Carroll on June 5, 2014.

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