Fire Returns to The Great Plains
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If you’re working on a prescribed burn, you need to have a few things with you. “This tool here is called a thaw claw or a hoe… This is called a fire swatter or flapper,” said Phil Dye, a firefighter from the San Francisco Bay Area.
The flapper looks exactly like a giant flyswatter. But that’s not how it’s used. Right now Dye and a few dozen firefighters are doing what’s called “black lining” just outside Elba, a small town on the Loup River in north central Nebraska. The crew is split into igniters and holders, and they’re walking along a 15-foot-wide line of grass that’s been mowed around the perimeter of a burn unit. The igniters pour gasoline on the short grass and then light the fire.
Once the grass has burned black, the holders drag their flappers on the ground to smother any remaining flames. Tomorrow, if the weather, wind, and humidity are just right, the firefighters will set fire to the 700 acres inside the black line. That line keeps the fire from spreading outside the burn unit.
“Basically, it’s a buffer, because fire’s not going to burn in an area that’s already been burned,” Dye said.
The firefighters are participating in a 10-day-long training exchange hosted by The Nature Conservancy and the nonprofit Pheasants Forever. The exchange has two goals: one is for firefighters to train on a prescribed burn and the other is to actually burn 4,000 acres of land to control the eastern redcedar population on the prairie.
Redcedars are native to Nebraska, but they’re starting to take over grassland areas — partly because of us. Ben Wheeler, the wildlife ecologist with the conservation group Pheasants Forever, said, “When white settlers moved in, we began some pretty aggressive fire-suppression campaigns, you know, because people were worried about fire going through their homesteads and being destructive.”
Today the redcedar population has grown so much that parts of the prairie look more like forest than grassland. Wheeler says that eastern redcedars used to only grow where natural wildfire couldn’t reach them, like steep, northern-facing slopes. Without fire, Wheeler said, “Those refuge areas for trees expanded exponentially — basically across the state.”
Don Westover, fire program leader with the Nebraska Forest Service, said recently that land management organizations like the U.S. Forest Service went from seeing fire as a threat to an integral force in prairie ecology. Westover said, “The U.S. Forest Service had a policy for a number of years that they called the 10 am policy, and that policy stated that all wildfires will be suppressed by 10 am the morning following the fire started.”
That all changed for the Forest Service and other federal agencies about 25 years ago. Instead of putting every fire out, the current policy is to let wildfires happen under very controlled circumstances, like at the training exchange near Elba, Nebraska.
Safety is every firefighter’s concern on the training exchange, especially for Dye, who is the burn’s plan chief. Every night he writes the incident action plan, or IAP, for the next day’s work. It’s a thick document that lists things like the burn’s objectives, weather forecast, each crew member’s assignment, and a go/no go checklist. Everything on the checklist has to be “yes before we can light fire,” Dye said.
The IAP is handbook, schedule, and manual all in one for the firefighters to refer to throughout the day. It cuts down on the chances that someone will accidentally start a fire. Dye has worked on grassland burns before, but not all the firefighters here have, like Ashley Whitworth, a firefighter in the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
“I’ve only done ditch burning and a few prescribed fires, but not 700 acres,” Whitworth said.
There are also firefighters from Nebraska, Idaho, Minnesota, Utah, California, and even Spain. Jose Luis Duce works for the Ministry of Environment in Spain and is one of 12 visiting firefighters. He’s also never worked on a prescribed fire, but he says that Spain’s grasslands evolved with fire, similar to Nebraska’s.
“This kind of fuel, we have this fuel in Spain,” Duce said, “but we don’t burn that much in Spain.”
Fuel, to firefighters, means anything that will burn. In this case, Duce means grass. Like Nebraska, wildfire spreads easily in Spain because of that grass, and especially on dry, windy days. In July 2009, those factors led to wildfires across Europe, from Spain to Turkey, resulting in hundreds of people evacuating their homes and eight deaths.
Duce thinks that’s why people are so reluctant to use fire as a management tool. “People only see the bad side of fire. It’s a part of the ecosystem. People don’t consider using fire as a natural tool.”
Once the crew finishes black lining, the firefighters will head back to the command post to get some sleep. Except for Dye. He’ll be working late into the night on the burn plan for tomorrow.
Dye spends so much time on the IAP because it’s the only way to make sure the burn stays safe for everyone involved, from the firefighters to the landowners. And it’s those procedures that drew so many firefighters to Nebraska for the training.
Watch a timelapse video of the prescribed burn on the Loup River from QUEST Nebraska.