Outdoors

A rebirth by fire

The Nature Call: Watching, learning from a controlled burn

Dana Kellog monitors a pre-burn to protect a large oak from the intense fire to come. (John Lawrence Hanson)
Dana Kellog monitors a pre-burn to protect a large oak from the intense fire to come. (John Lawrence Hanson)
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I knew the woodcock could see me.

It’s uniquely formed head has the eyes over the brain. Set atop its head and splayed, the eyes can notice what’s above and behind like few animals.

The glint of daylight on it’s left eye kept me focused, lest I lost its position. So expertly camouflaged, woodcocks remain hidden until roused by a bird dog on scent, a wandering biped or, today, fire.

I went afield to witness a fire.

The very word lends itself to shouting and panic. Yet this was not conflagration of destruction. Rather, it was a fire for renewal and rebirth. Not for the destruction of living tissue, but for its invigoration.

Was fire our first great technology? Surely stone tools and nets were important to early hominids, but without fire how could we have ventured from our equatorial African home?

Controlled, fire became a giver. Fire gave warmth against a cold night. It gave new flavor to food and eased digestion. Fire gave us something to gather around and dream. Have you ever found yourself staring into a fire until you are actually looking through it? The other side of the inferno looking-glass revealed visions, prophesies, destines and the essences of the soul for untold generations.

If you haven’t, build a fire.

Four men gathered to build a fire. Instead of a hearth or ring of rocks, they selected a patch of prairie and oak savanna. They set out to craft a fire as much as an architect designs a building upon a trestleboard. They had a purpose, they had a plan and they had the quickness and fluidity of movement marking an experienced team.

With drip-torches, backpack water cans and protective clothing they could have been confused for “Ghostbusters” or extras in a 1950’s sci-fi flick. They were a fireteam.

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This fireteam moved with purpose to take charge of all property under the care of the County Conservation Board. They located the enemy, then by maneuver, assaulted the enemy with fire and close combat. The enemy was cool season grasses and softwood trees and shrubs.

The prairie, the oak savanna, ruled this ancient land. Fire from lightning, later from natives, kept these productive landscapes intact.

As rare as is the tallgrass prairie, the oak savanna is rarer still. Well distanced oaks lording over a tapestry of plants, all enjoying the sun to maximum bounty. In particular the Burr Oak, clad in its cork-like bark, an armor from the fire that is the handmaiden of its propagation.

The revolution of Euro-America settlement destroyed the ancien régime. This fireteam was set on guarding the health of this sliver of antiquity.

They began without fanfare. They knew their jobs and their faith was in one another. I was caught off guard by the speed and silence in which they commenced the battle. The wind was from the north, so the first line was set in the south. The time was 11:35 a.m.

One man on point, he patrolled parallel to the line of fire. Kerosene dripped from his instrument. In his wake a new skirmish line of fire grew, popping and crackling, faintly at first. Maybe it was hesitant or unsure, only tendrils of smoke. But the fire was righteous in its mission. That confidence fanned the flames until it moved with strength and purpose against the wind into the enemy.

Two members of the fireteam took up flanking positions. They guarded for escape and set auxiliary lines of fire for effect as the whole team moved north.

The team leader now advanced to a forward position. He reconnoitered for the exceptions, the oaks that were to be spared exploding cambium by the heat of racing flames. He preset mini rings of fire around the trunks of Iowa’s state trees. The leader alternated between instruments, dispensing flame or water as circumstances warranted.

The disheveled land succumbed to fire. It was replaced by a curious carpet, black and of low pile.

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At 11:58, there was a slight shift of wind, for a moment drawing the breeze from the northwest. The fireteam adjusted in stride.

The prescribed burn was a riot for the senses. The sounds, the smells, they awakened very old things in my brain. Things so old I don’t understand them. More likely, I can’t understand them.

Unburned leaves and ash were cast aloft by the heat. Such odd precipitation. Showering over my head one leaf fell to earth with an unexpected flutter. It was 12:08 p.m., a resident woodcock self-evicted from the path of the fire. No bother to this denizen of the forest’s brushy floor. Its relationship with grassland fire is probably as old as the oaks.

The sunny and fair sky was evidence the weather front had passed hours earlier. As the high pressure eye displaced the influence of the low, the winds found themselves in disagreement as to exactly which direction to follow.

On cue, a gust announced a voice of wind from the east-southeast. After some debate, the winds switched again from the northwest. It had the strongest argument.

The fireteam had advanced well beyond my observational position. From my safe station, the warriors against invasive flora continue their methodical assault. Their figures were made blurry through distance mediated by smoke and waves of heat. At times they seemed to be in the very midst of the conflagration.

If surrounded, then no man lost his nerve. There was no retreat, rather they dispassionately turned to the matter at hand and fought in a new direction.

Fire is but one tool in the work of ecological maintenance and restoration. Landscape-level use, like one might imagine in Montana or California, can not and will not happen in Iowa. There are too many homes and farms and small properties.

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Mowing, grazing, and herbicides are tools, too. Perhaps they are more civilized tools, as Iowa is a more civilized land?

They could be mowers, or herdsmen, or chemists. But only when these four assemble to spread flames are they a fireteam. A fireteam that comes in peace.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.

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