THOMASTON -- It is a beautiful day at Sprewell Bluff Natural Area near Sprewell Bluff State Park. Temperatures are in the 40s, but the sun is shining, last night's rain is only a memory and the breeze is light, perfect conditions for a burn.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division conducts prescribed burns on state lands as well as some privately owned lands. The process is an important technique used by wildlife and forestry managers to stimulate the growth of grasses and forbs, set back the growth of small trees and shrubs, improve access, provide habitat for threatened and endangered species, enhance populations of fire-dependent plants and animals, and reduce high fuel levels that can contribute to dangerous wildfires.
Participants quickly realize it is also a learning experience and a lot of fun.
Highly trained teams work from an extensive burn plan that lays out critical information such as weather conditions including humidity, temperature and wind speed, plus safety considerations and nearby smoke sensitive areas. A burn boss, someone thoroughly familiar with the burn unit and with considerable burning experience, decides when to try the burn, assembles a crew, briefs them on the operation and commands the prescribed fire. Some prescribed fires are very small, only requiring two to three people and minimal equipment. Others may require as many as two dozen people, ATVs, wildland fire engines and even helicopters.
This burn team is made up of a dozen people, a combination of DNR and The Nature Conservancy folks, all experienced burners. The burn boss is Nathan Klaus, a DNR wildlife biologist. The destination, called the unit, is a 550-acre parcel of old-growth longleaf pine forest, some of the oldest in the state. The land is so rugged, some adjacent private lands have to be burned as well. A fire plow can't make it down these steep slopes, slopes that were probably responsible for sparing the trees when the area was logged.
Klaus has developed a working relationship with adjacent landowners, and most now trust him enough to say, "go ahead and burn my land, too."
The burn team gathers in a clearing best reached by ATV or 4-wheel drive vehicle. Everyone checks his or her gear. Radios are handed out and water bottles filled. Every member of the team wears flame-retardant clothing, boots and helmets. They gather to receive a map of the unit and the standard briefing that takes place before any prescribed burn. The unit is clearly defined and the team must take care to make sure that only the area within the lines is burned. Safety is key.
The team divides into three groups, each with a leader. Two of the groups will go to opposite sides of the unit and begin setting the fire with drip torches, working their way toward each other. The last group will stay with the truck, which is full of water and will be used to "hold" the line, making sure to put out any errant flames that jump across.
The team cruises up and down the line, pausing each hour to check the weather, relaying them to Klaus and recording them for later review. It is important to keep a check on the weather because a shift in wind speed or a sudden drop in humidity can drastically change the behavior of the fire, possibly endangering the crew.
Today, the weather is cooperating.
Radios chatter back and forth as the work is quickly and efficiently completed. Burning is precise. The smoke is thick and obscures vision so verification of position by way of constant communication is important.
Riding an ATV he nicknamed "Mean Green," Klaus uses a flame-thrower for faster ignition. It looks like a wild ride, but safety is never far from his mind and he stops frequently to check radio contact with his team.
Once the flames get going they burn away from the line searching for fuel. They will not go back over an area that is already burned. This is why it is important to burn the line around the outside of the unit. It makes containment of the fire easier.
At times the flames shoot high into the air before settling back down. The smoke is visible for miles.
The sun is setting but the teams continue working, switching on headlamp. As the groups move toward each other from opposite hills, the fire lines are visible zigzaging down the mountain in the dark.
After meeting up at the bottom, the teams climb back up the smoking hillside to their vehicles. Members debrief as radios are silenced and helmets packed away. The drip torches, extinguished, are loaded onto the fire truck.
Day one of the burn is complete. Klaus and a smaller team will return the next day to complete burning the interior of the unit. Another day, another fire.
The blackened areas will soon show new plant growth and the fire ecology cycle will continue.
Summers is a senior public relations and information
specialist with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division.