My first experience with fire came when I was too young to remember. As my mom tells the story, in the summer of 1979, she loaded my two sisters and me into a little red wagon and pulled us down a dirt road, away from our mountain home that lay in the path of an oncoming wildfire. We lived about 20 miles from the Canadian border in North Central Washington.
Three decades later, I graduated from college with a degree in Geography with an emphasis in fire ecology. Today, rather than avoiding fire, I seek it out. A recent burn on The Nature Conservancy’s Kingston Prairie Preserve (OR) provided me with the opportunity to pull on my dirty yellow Nomex fire shirt and strap on my 12-inch-high leather fire boots. With torches in gloved hands, three other “lighters” and I set the prairie ablaze. Our goal: to restore fire to an ecosystem that needs flames as much as it needs sun and rain and soil.
The foundation for my work on the Kingston Prairie Preserve is a project named LANDFIRE. Our Conservancy LANDFIRE team maps vegetation and fire-related information for the entire United States. According to our findings, the area I burned is called “Willamette Valley Upland Prairie and Savanna”; fire history data indicates that it burned about every three to 10 years under its “natural” or “historic” fire cycle. In other words, it burned a lot.
Most of the Willamette Valley has been converted to agriculture -- less than one percent of the original prairie and savanna ecosystems remain. These prairies, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country, are lost without fire. Without it, the land evolves into something altogether different, mostly Douglas-fir forest. Today we are trying to fend off those Doug-firs, and use fire as one of many tools that can promote restoration of natural cycles.
I don’t think about vegetation history and historic cycles when I set drip torch to ground. My mind is on more immediate concerns, like the way the wind blows, and where I will go if it shifts and puts me in danger. I listen for the weather report to come over my radio so I’ll know if it is getting hotter and drier – a situation that could also put me at risk. I watch the engine lay down a “wet line” and assess how well the grass is being consumed with each strip I light.
When the lighting is done and the grass is burned, our crew of 15 people takes stock. There have been casualties -- at least five snakes died because they were unable to slither away from the flames. I hope that death came quickly and turn my thoughts to flowers. I am glad to know that blooms that benefit from fire, like camas, have a good year ahead of them.
I look forward to returning to the Preserve next spring to a fire-assisted flush of wildflowers. For now, I return to my LANDFIRE work, and build simulations of fire, pixel by pixel on my computer. I’ll call my mom, and reminisce about days gone by, before personal computers, when a young mother and three children returned to a home that was spared the flames.
I’ll bide my time behind the computer for now but my boots are greased and ready for the next fire.
Contact Kori Blankenship