A Day with the Burn Crew
Setting fire to Mary Beth Doyle Park. Very carefully.
by Patrick Dunn
From the June, 2018 issue
7:30 a.m.: In just twelve hours, the dry leaves I'm traipsing through at Mary Beth Doyle Park will be a mat of charred, black ash--and my companions on this chilly morning can hardly wait. Mike Hahn, a stewardship specialist for the city's Natural Area Preservation (NAP) department, and Tina Stephens, NAP's volunteer and outreach coordinator, are here to set a controlled burn.
Controlled burns are a major part of NAP's park management strategy. The basic goal is to reintroduce fire to the ecosystem.
For millennia, Native Americans used burns to create open space and improve game habitats, and many plant species evolved to coexist with fire. Now land stewards use them as a way to invigorate native species that are adapted to survive with fire and set back invasive species that are not.
NAP has two burn seasons a year, running from late February to May and from October to December. This year, it's working on a list of twenty-eight sites. The decision about which to burn when is based on the weather--which means it generally happens at the last minute.
"The conversations go until ten o'clock at night, and then they pick up at six in the morning, and we just go from there and figure out what the game plan is," Hahn says. Walking briskly as he ties pieces of bright yellow plastic tape to trees to mark the areas to be burned, he explains that Mary Beth Doyle was chosen on this day primarily because the wind is out of the northwest. That should keep the smoke away from Packard Rd. and numerous schools northwest of the park.
Mary Beth Doyle is also one of NAP's top priorities this year because it's considered a "high quality" woodland, containing relatively few invasive species and many native ones. But it hasn't always been this way.
NAP deputy manager Dave Borneman recalls the very first time NAP burned the park in the spring of 2000. "Our botanist at
the time was a little skeptical about whether it was worth doing, because it didn't seem like a very high quality park," he says.
The botanist and other NAP staffers were amazed, Borneman says, to see "wave after wave" of native wildflowers spring up in the following weeks (see Outside, May). That, Borneman says, "made believers out of the skeptics."
8:30 a.m.: Hahn and Stephens return to the NAP office, a former home on E. Huron River Dr. Inside, staffers Rebecca Snider and Dana Novak are working the phones, notifying people who live near the park. Outside, conservation crew members are loading trucks with equipment and water.
Hahn retreats to plot burn strategy with stewardship specialist Becky Gajewski. Connecting the dots formed by the waypoints he flagged earlier, he marks out four "burn units" on a map of the park. Units One and Two are defined in part by the park's existing trails. Unit Three, a small patch of grassy prairie, is near the park's southern end, with the small "Packard Unit" near the street on the park's northern end.
Gajewski requests a spot weather forecast for the park from the National Weather Service website. It arrives within minutes, giving hour-by-hour predictions on wind speed, temperature, and--most importantly--relative humidity, which must be below 50 percent for a burn. She enters the wind speed information into a program called VSmoke, which generates a computerized model of where smoke is likely to move.
Despite all this planning, nature will still have its own way. Unexpected wind conditions--and any neighbor complaints that result--may significantly affect the burn's progress, especially on a big site like Doyle. Between them, the four units to be burned total more than fifteen acres.
10 a.m.: Back at the park, three conservation crew members are prepping the site. A fourth staffer, Alex Cherry, is on the road placing warning signs along I-94, Packard, and other nearby streets.
Using leaf blowers, the crew begins to clear "burn breaks" along the boundaries Hahn has flagged, exposing lines of bare ground that will limit the fires' spread.
11:30 a.m.: It's almost time for ignition. More NAP staffers and several volunteers arrive, bringing the burn crew to fifteen people. Volunteer Ted Hejka has been working with NAP since 1994. "It's very fulfilling for me, seeing how ... things have dramatically shifted just in my lifetime," he says. Another volunteer, Norm Fell, says he was hooked while kayaking at Furstenberg Nature Area four years ago: "I saw these people burning stuff and wearing cool clothes, so I wanted to get involved. I don't know if I'm more a liability than a help, but I'm here every year."
Multiple NAP staffers chime in: "You're always a help."
Hahn briefs the team on the burn's goals and potential hazards in the woods and gives out assignments for the day. He will be the burn boss for Units One and Two, while Stephens will be the boss for Unit Three and the Packard unit.
Hahn asks Cherry to check the weather conditions one final time. Relative humidity is at 30 percent. "Okay," Hahn smiles. "It is dry. It'll burn."
Noon: Cherry sets off to patrol the area around the park by car, checking smoke conditions. The rest of the crew dons flame-resistant yellow Nomex suits and fire helmets. Grabbing canisters of flammable "torch mix" and backpacks of water, they head into the woods.
Gajewski and a couple of others begin dropping flaming torch mix from their canisters, igniting neat lines of fire at the southeastern edge of Unit One. Soon the dry leaves on the ground are turned into about a ten-foot-wide semicircle of smoldering ash at the unit's edge. Once the northwest wind has pushed the main fires across the unit, this "black line" should stop them in their tracks.
1:30 p.m.: As the crew ignites the more northwesterly regions of Unit One, Stephens is supervising a more visually spectacular burn on the Packard unit. Unlike the leaf-littered woods in the rest of the park, the "fuel" here is tall prairie grasses that almost seem to explode as Stephens and her team ignite them, sending up four- to six-foot-high flames and billows of yellowish-white smoke. The heat is so intense that I momentarily lower the visor on my helmet to shield my face.
The show is over relatively quickly, but it attracts the attention of a passerby who shouts something inaudible to Stephens over the blaze. She hurries over to talk to him and returns with a smile on her face. "I thought he was complaining, but what he was actually shouting was, 'Is it okay if I say that's cool as hell?'" she says. "I tried to get him to volunteer."
Stephens says most passersby are just curious about burns with a handful either concerned or excited. Stephens relishes interacting with them all. "It's a great opportunity to do education about invasive plants and the tools we have, because it's so flashy," she says.
The conservation crews also physically cut back invasive plants and apply herbicides, but "when we're out cutting shrubs, people aren't as motivated to ask questions."
2:30 p.m.: A large smoke cloud has lifted above the trees in Unit Two, where crew members have begun ignition. The other three units have been burned and the crew has begun the less thrilling, but equally important, task of mop-up. Hunting down patches that are still smoking, they extinguish the smolders one by one with water from their backpacks.
3 p.m.: A smoke complaint comes in from Scarlett Middle School, and Hahn orders the crew to cease ignition. After about fifteen minutes, he gives the OK to resume burning but in short, six-foot "strip fires" as opposed to the twenty- to thirty-foot lines they've been using so far. These will go out more quickly than the long ones, allowing for more immediate response if another complaint comes in.
4:10 p.m.: With school out for the day, the crew picks up the pace. Fires burn fast and hot in Unit Two, and at last the crew lights a "head fire"--the final large fire at the unit's northwestern edge that will move downwind to meet the smaller areas burned earlier.
Several native shrubs at the park's edge are caged to protect them from browsing deer. As the fire approaches, Hahn and other crew members become almost comically busy protecting them from the blaze, running back and forth spritzing the plants with water.
5 p.m.: With ignition completed, the crew fully turns its attention to mopping up. Stephens and conservation worker Kayla McGuire are working on the Packard unit. McGuire spends at least ten minutes on a single log, spraying it with water repeatedly before resorting to rubbing mud on it.
Stephens cheerfully notes that it's "not unusual" for mop-up to continue until after dark. "If the moon is out, your eyes can pretty easily adjust," she says.
Stephens says she's "never been more tired or dirty or hungry than after a burn," but her and her colleagues' enthusiasm for the work is obvious. Fire, she says, is "such an amazingly powerful tool."
6 p.m.: Most of the volunteers have headed home. One of the last to leave is EMU student Ben Mitcham, who's volunteering for the second time.
Mitcham says the day was "long but good," and he enjoyed feeling more knowledgeable and helpful than he did the first time. Would he come back? "Oh, for sure," he says. "They might have one tomorrow, in fact, and depending on how my back feels I might go again."
6:50 p.m.: Hahn is in the thick of mop-up on units One and Two, mostly working on logs. The standard strategy is to pump water directly into cracks in them--or crack them open if the smoke proves persistent.
Repeatedly scanning the horizon "for that dancing smoke to catch my attention," he works slowly and methodically, "You'll turn around, get a different angle on it, and be like, 'Ah, geez. There's more,'" he says.
7 p.m.: Hahn declares Unit One "cold." Stephens has finished mop-up on Unit Three and the Packard unit as well, so everyone converges on Unit Two. As he works, a satisfied Hahn notes that most of the invasive buckthorn in the woods is visibly singed; he estimates that 70 to 80 percent of it has been killed.
Although buckthorn is still present throughout the park, Borneman says there's much less than there was when NAP began burning here. He says the effects of this burn will last several years. "We often describe it as drawing a line in the leaf litter, rather than a line in the sand."
By radio, Hahn and Cherry discuss posting "What Happened Here?" signs to explain the charred ground to park visitors. The signs, Hahn says, "let people know this was completely intentional and nobody was harmed in it, and everything went as planned."
7:45 p.m.: Unit Two is declared cold, and the crew gathers in a circle just outside the park to debrief. Hahn praises everyone's work and says the burn accomplished its goal. "I think the flowers are going to look awesome this spring, and I would recommend that everybody take time to go appreciate it, because it looks that good."
He invites each member of the crew to share both positive and negative feedback on the burn. Then he tells them to anticipate a ten-hour day Friday, and a five-hour Saturday.
The crew applauds and cheers.
[Originally published in June, 2018.]
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