I am not a firefighter. The only fires I have ever put out have been smoldering campfires and mere candle flames. During the summers that hardworking firefighters have worked 24/7 to keep fires around Missoula from reaching our homes, I have done nothing but sit on my porch in the mornings, gazing up at the smokey sky, and watching pine needles turned to ash disappear into my coffee mug. Though wildfires often surround me in the summers, I had never felt the heat of a tsunami of fire raging through the forest.
When I agreed to help Christian and Watershed Consulting with a prescribed burn on the outskirts of Missoula, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just wanted to see the tsunami of fire, the flames skirting along the forest floor, and the layers of forest engulfed in smoke. I didn't think about what a prescribed burn actually was or what it would actually entail. All I knew was that I needed leather gloves, leather boots, and rule number one was "Don't fuck up!"
Mark is the man behind both Bad Goat Forest Products and Watershed Consulting. After years of heavy drinking and a lifetime of aversion to any form of exercise, Mark looks a little bit like Jolly Ol' Saint Nick. But the man is only in his 50s and is sharp as a tack with a dry sense of humor. Mark drives an old, orange Nissan with rusty bullet holes in the driver's side door. Christian asked him where the holes came from. He said he can't remember. Maybe someone shot at him. Maybe he shot it himself. He just laughed and avoided the question.
At 8AM, we met Mark at the Bad Goat Forest Products headquarters right under the Scott Street bridge. There were 6 volunteers total and none of us had ever done a prescribed burn before. But that was the point. We were burning the backyard of two professors from the University of Montana and they wanted students to gain hands-on experience with prescribed burns, even though it might make the burn a riskier endeavor.
At the site of the burn, we meet up with two men who work for Watershed Consulting. The Burn Bosses. They are the ones who know how that tsunami of fire is likely to behave and how to organize us volunteers to make sure that we burn only the allotted plot of ground. We fill the truck with gallons upon gallons of water, fuel, shovels, rakes, hoses, the whole gamut, and then hop in the trunk and drive up the dirt road to where the burn will begin.
A mix of gasoline and diesel drips out of the tip of the drip torch. On each site of the plot, one of the Burn Bosses lights the tip of the torch on fire and the burn begins. At first, us volunteers stand along the edges of the flames with shovels and water sprayers waiting to stop any fire that begins to move out of the burn line. Eventually, we all get a turn to light the ground on fire with the torch.
The drip torch is the most beautifully destructive tool I have ever used. That mix of gasoline and diesel streams out of the torch and ignites once it hits the flame at the tip. The flame then arches down to the ground with the stream of fuel to light the dry grasses on fire. Walking a fire line with the drip torch made me feel like Moses parting the Red Sea. One short walk through the forest with the drip torch and I parted all the dried grasses on the forest floor with a tsunami of fire.
Although the flames engulfed all of the dry grasses, burned bushes, and charred logs, the fire was not destructive. In fact, the professors hired Watershed Consulting to help create a healthier ecosystem in their backyard. After years of fire suppression, the acres of forest behind their house were choked with organic matter: dead trees, dried needles, dense bushes, and other woody debris. The wildflowers didn't grow like they used to. They could barely see through the trees. And the forest was sitting there like a pile of newspaper waiting to be ignited by a single strike of lightning.
Over years and years, they have thinned the forest behind their house and created a forest that looks, ironically, more natural, more like the forest should look if we had allowed fire to burn through the forest year after year. The prescribed burn was the next step. By setting the ground on fire, we eliminated all of the woody debris and duff built up on the forest floor. Now if lightning strikes the backyard, hopefully the whole forest won't catch on fire. Now wildflowers will bloom up through the soil with ease.
The work was hard. The smoke from the fire engulfed us, the heat from that wall of fire was overwhelming. I felt like I was coughing smoke out of my lungs for days after the burn. I came down with a fever. My muscles ached. After we stamped out the last bit of fire burning along the line, we sat around on the professor's back porch, eating homemade chili and cornbread, and drinking some local Missoula beer.
We kept the fire in line and successfully burned the allotted acres. We never broke rule number one. We didn't fuck up. I finally felt the heat of a small tsunami of fire raging through the forest. But hot damn, I am still no firefighter.