For this installment, Dr. Inga La Puma relates her experience in the Spring of 2015 when she participated in her first prescribed fire.
I have always considered myself to be the shining example of ‘the problem’. A fire scientist who has never been on a fire, prescribed or otherwise. Then I got the call in March from Dr. Nick Skowronski, U.S. Forest Service. Did I want to come out and help with a research burn? No question! I looked forward to observing not only a prescribed fire in the New Jersey Pinelands where I had done my fire history and modeling research at Rutgers, but to observe one in which numerous scientists from the University of Edinburgh, the USFS, Tomsk State University (in Russia) and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) were collecting data on embers, smoke, and weather. This block had been burned two years before with the same equipment, and the videos I had seen were impressive. After modeling fire and forest disturbance for four or five years, I couldn’t WAIT to get out in the field again. The morning arrived cold and clear, with a slight northwest breeze. Perfect! I met Mike Gallagher, U.S. Forest Service and Dr. Bob Kremens, RIT, at 7 a.m. at Lucille’s restaurant in the middle of the Pinelands (mmm pie) and we followed Mike out to the side of the road. The sand roads at the entrance area looked familiar. I was sure I had been close during my field work measuring trees seven years ago – but this is the Pinelands, so it probably just looked the same. I was worried about wearing a coat and if it could fit under the PPE shirt I was given and if I could wear a hat under my helmet. I was glad I brought lined leather work gloves because people were complaining left and right about freezing hands. I was assigned to help Bob put up small smoke towers throughout the burn plot, and off we went. Nick arrived and set up all the cameras while the ember people from Edinburgh set up their sites to catch embers. Finally the New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS) wildland firefighters arrived and began to burn out the section next to the research plot. I watched them confidently putting fire on the ground with their drip torches and regular radio communication around the plots. I asked how they knew when the burn was done, and one of the guys said, “When the smoke stops!” Oh…right! Duh. Well, then the section warden chimed in with more detail on how all of the edges may come together and you might see a convective column in the middle of the plot. That was the kind of answer I was looking for!
Once the side plot was burned out, it was time to burn the research plot, but we had to wait for the plane with the infrared equipment to get close enough to begin. Finally, the plane arrived and Nick told all the researchers to stay put in the safe zone. The crew lit the research plot, and as I watched the fire burn with interest, the researchers and fire crew seemed unimpressed. It was a slow crawling ground fire that even seemed to skip some areas. I believe many of the crew were disappointed that the fire didn’t burn as hot as it had last time, but Nick pointed out that we were proving that prescribed fire works, and that the earlier burn had done its job by knocking down fuels.
Nick gave the OK for me to walk with Dr. Ken Clark, U.S. Forest Service, down the side of the burn and as small as it was, I still felt the heat to the point where I wanted to step back. I got a face-full of smoke that for some reason was unexpected to me as a novice, although afterwards I was laughing at myself for it! I finished out the day helping Ken by clipping shrub plots outside the burn and checking out his main weather tower. We walked back to check out the burn and noted small areas that looked unburned within the plot as well as an absence of personnel. We finally found everyone on the side of the sand road that divided the plot talking about how things had gone that day. I spoke with Tom Gerber, NJFFS, about coming out to help and observe more fires. Did I want to do this more often? Heck, yes! I came home totally energized from a gorgeous day outside amongst the trees and fire. I was amazed at how the knowledge of generations of fire managers in the NJFFS and the fire scientists from across the Atlantic could be combined to pull off a research-based prescribed fire, where everyone could learn, including me! I am not sure how often I can get out there – and fires don’t seem to care much about my kids’ dance and piano class schedules, but still, I sincerely hope that my first fire was the beginning of many in the years to come.