Though not over, this week has been physically the toughest one this fall. On top of our normal work of woody brush and tree removal, my crew and I have successfully completed multiple woodland prescribed burns, and stayed late ensuring that all signs of fire, embers, and smoke have been extinguished. Earlier in the week I could not say whether my itchy throat and laboured breathing was due to smoke inhalation, which is typical especially since I was lighting much of the interior on the burn units, or if my symptoms were the start of a sickness. Well, it is pointing toward sickness, but good news is that since I am forced to rest, I have time to document and share!
It must be noted that the first half of November was fairly typical: brisk with rain and a few snow events. This past week there is a warm spell with swift winds, the ideal weather to burn a woodland! Monday’s burn was in Whitetail Woods, a county park in Minnesota, and it was our groups first major burn this season. The burn unit was roughly 35 acres large, and our burn covered most of it, skipping areas we prevented fire from moving to such as piles of downed, woody debris. Winds were around 20 miles per hour but constant, so it was ideal to travel over hills and penetrate the hardwood trees to fuel the fire. We lit our test burn around 13:00, the air temperature was around 55 fahrenheit, and with the approval from our burn boss, we proceeded to let the fire grow. From that moment until 20:00 I was engaged in both spreading the fire in the interior of the forest where the oak litter and grasses needed some encouragement, and also extinguishing.
Unfortunately for us, more than a few girthy, standing snags caught on fire without our immediate notice. A couple were rapidly extinguished, but four were problematic. I found one that was over 20 feet upright, and the fire was about three quarters the way up. It was also within falling distance of a hiking trail, which park goers were still using at their own risk, so extinguishing it upright or felling it became my top priority. I chose to fell it.
After informing the burn boss of my finding and receiving the go ahead, I grabbed a chain saw and two crew members to have as spotters. I felt confident in the situation, but the winds were ever blowing, so I wanted more safety precautions than normal. They watched intensely as I struggled to make a proper face cut into the snag. Our saws have been under enormous stress with daily use and this particular saw was unable to cut normally though the chain teeth were sharp. I grabbed a second to try, and this one was difficult to start, and proved to be out of commission. So I grabbed a third saw and got to work. By this time the fire was growing up, the wind was raging, and the sun was setting. I had to step away from the snag many times because embers were falling on me and smoke was making it difficult to see or breath. I made the best cuts I could into the hollow snag, but it was not enough, so we had to improvise and make some woodland wedges to bump the cut open more so gravity could do the rest. We did precisely that and the snag soon laid at our feet. I could not have been comfortable or able to do that without the help of my crew, and after thanking them, we moved onto new objectives.
We had hardships with our gear, and we had hardships with having access to water. One pump on our water trucks broke and it was too time consuming to fix on the burn. We had to make due without it and we set off into the night with our hand tools, following the trails of embers. Those who had water used it sparingly whilst the working water truck retrieved more water. The only benefit of moping up woodland fires in the dark hours is that one can see every ember, but that also is the problem. It can be daunting and demoralizing to see how much more work is left. I found encouragement looking into the distance at fires vanish, knowing that my crew was working just as hard as I was.
I am thankful that all the burns were completed safely and that come spring, the land can repair itself with rejuvenated soil and open spaces for sunlight to penetrate to new leafs.