Is this what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands? Today I felt the heat of a prairie fire as I volunteered for a planned burn. It reminded me of the first prairie fire I ever witnessed, and an essay I wrote afterward in utter awe of the power. I’m taking liberties with my self-imposed 500-words-or-under rule to share this with you. The original publication was here in February 2011 (I was a guest blogger). There are great pictures at that link, and the other entries are well worth a read, especially for naturalists and prairie ecologists. The photos below are from Thursday, September 4, 2014.
Today I participated in a prairie burn at LLELA (the 2,000 acre wildlife preserve where I work). I now have a profound respect for the settlers who moved to the prairies and fought wildfires with their bare hands, with shirts and rags. They fought to help neighbors and themselves, to save houses, fields, and families.
I also gained a profound respect for fire fighters. Even several feet away from a blaze of waist-high plants engulfed in powerful, vibrant orange, I felt the skin on my upper arms burning and wondered if I’d walk away with blisters. How do fire fighters do it? How did settlers do it?
After work today I became aware of the bustling activity of a few LLELA employees and volunteers. The winds were right, the time was short, the plans were laid – it was time for a burn! Steady, slow winds and other factors expedient for a burn coalesce rarely, so when the time is right, action must always be swift (even though plans are made well in advance).
I was honored to be invited to watch my first ever prairie burn; I didn’t know I’d get to participate! I showed up to observe the pros at work, but instead was told to park my car nearby with the keys still in the ignition (so someone could start the car fast and get away if needed – yikes!). I was handed a big yellow bag full of water to wear on my back, and its accompanying hose and sprayer to douse unruly flames, and took turns with my boss Lisa using what looked like a mud flap from an 18-wheeler attached to a broom handle to slap little flames (or sometimes big flames) that strayed from their allotted zones.
It was serious work! My eyes would sting when the smoke thickened, my arms were burning, hot ash sometimes landed on my bare skin, my upper back muscles were sore, and the only shade available was from the smoke itself, and only when it became so thick and brown it blotted out the sun! In those eerie times, the glow around me would look alternately green, magenta, and even purple.
As I watched Lisa deftly handle the tools of the trade (the flapper, the hose, the igniter), and heard her conversing with Ken and Richard via radio, I realized how important communication is in such a situation. Teamwork is as essential as any of the other tools. A fire may be planned, but it is a raw, powerful, raging form of energy, and I kept thinking of the word force; it is a compelling, unavoidable, unrelenting Force of Nature which, once unleashed, is hard to contain.
And containing it was the art. The tools were never idle; used against a huge blaze, they may seem paltry, but they were deftly and strategically wielded. We were creating a fire break, an area that would be burned ahead of time so that the major fire would blaze toward it, get to the edge of it, run out of fuel, and subsequently die.
Our purpose was clear, but the method was subject to the caprices of weather. Our supposedly steady forecasted wind proved as fickle as a politician, and constantly shifted positions. Little flames seemed to be constantly testing their bounds, and when we turned our backs, they’d have created messes as toddlers with a new babysitter do.
And a new babysitter is exactly what I felt like! Experience is a grand teacher, and it was obvious that I had none. Lisa could see signs of fire where I saw only grass; she could see flames where I saw only wisps of smoke. When I first started helping, the scene would look placid right up until the point that there were multiple small fires out of my control. Gradually I became more aware of the patterns of the fire, and of the goal behind the smaller actions involved in keeping the fire in line.
At one point I saw flames brightly and colorfully reflected in big drops of water Lisa had just sprayed on the grass. So I knew that grass was wet and had no need of my attention, so I turned to other fires to swat. The next time I looked at the same area, it had become a bustling city of little flames, sprouted there as if by magic, or mischief! Vigilance is a must.
Little flames could also crouch unseen, hiding under small thickets of green grasses and plants. They seemed to watch with bright eyes until I turned away, then they’d suddenly burst forth and consume the towering goldenrod above them, as well as the shorter stems that had covered them. I could understand how ancient people might have attributed animate characteristics to fire.
The movement! The colors! The sound! The smell! The smell of a prairie fire is as homey to me as a campfire. Nothing was as unsettling, though, as the sound it made. Different plants burned with different sounds, but when many plants were burning inside of a wall of angry red and orange, the sound became cracking, popping, and a faint thrumming roar. I think it would have given me goosebumps if I hadn’t been so hot. If I heard that sound anywhere but in a controlled burn, my blood would to turn to ice in my veins. That’s the sound of death rushing straight at you.
And the animals noticed, too. We were only burning about 20 acres, so I’d guess that most of the animals we’d consider cuddly and cute were able to get away before they were in real danger. But the grasshoppers were caught by surprise. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to figure out which way to hop. Are they geriatric at the end of their season?
I had only a little time to contemplate the fate of some roasted grasshoppers, and wonder at the other animals who were (hopefully) making their escape. (In particular, I asked Lisa about snakes, her area of expertise. Could they slither fast enough?) But as I drove home, the implications of the power of fire wielded by human hands settled on me like heavy ashen dust.
Is this, then, what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands?
We decide when to burn; we decide when to plant. We decide what to kill; we decide what to preserve. We decide what to contain; we decide what to eradicate. Fire is the most blatant display of such powers I’ve ever seen. The scorched land we’d created with the use of fire recalled scenes or war, or descriptions of a hellish wasteland, a true gehenna. What will spring from these ashes, though, is a healthier prairie, covering the scars of fire with breathtaking greens, golds, reds, blues, browns, and purples in less than a year.
Fire kills, and fire brings life. It’s a heady experience to control a power like that, even just to see it. Maybe control is too strong a word; perhaps manipulate is better. Manipulate – is the root word related to hands? That would be appropriate. With our own hands, and our own brains, we choose how and when to use a power like fire.
Fighting that fire (for that was my role, though others had different roles) was tough and rewarding. Though I’m inspired by the prairie settlers’ tenacity, bravery, and toughness, I can see that they were fighting a perpetual battle against a force of nature. Prairies and fires are as inextricable as forests and leaves.
Restoration ecologists know this about North American prairies: you can’t have a thriving prairie ecosystem without bison… and fire. Fire, as destructive as it seems to humans, is necessary for the renewal of the prairies, and the removal of trees.
Trees, yes – those symbols of restoration. “Plant a tree!” we’re told. But trees are the enemies of some ecosystems. Trees and grasses are ancient enemies; where one thrives, the other rarely survives. So, fire it must be to keep the prairies alive. Fire, bison, and now humans, for so much of the prairie is incarcerated behind concrete bars and barriers that we are the new bison; we are the new force of nature, and in our hands is the power to protect or destroy.