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Fear on the Fireline: My First Real Encounter - Part 1 of 4

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Part 1

The smell of gasoline and diesel mixed is distinct. For me, it invokes memories of times good and bad, but mostly good. It doesn’t quite overwhelm the senses the way pure gasoline does of course, but it will certainly make you nauseous if you breathe in the fumes for too long. Its dark red color (if you are using road diesel) makes a mess if it gets on cotton, so I take the care to avoid splashing fuel on myself like a fool. Three parts diesel to two parts gasoline is our standard mix, so I make sure to get the ratio correct as I fill six different five-gallon cans at the small town gas pump on this chilly March morning.

I pull out of the station, politely letting the two trailer park boys pass by with their backwoods cigars and tall-boy cans of Bush Light in hand. The traffic slows behind me as I ease on up toward the speed limit in the old grey Ford F250. I remember I am on a time constraint today. I know I need to be back to the shop yard in about 15 minutes or so because weather is favorable for a burn. My muddy state Fish and Wildlife Commission truck bumps on down the highway as I travel south across the barge canal bridge, and I soon turn east off of State Road 19 on to a lime rock road just north of the boundary of the Ocala National Forest.

I follow the dusty road on past the hunter check station shack and rusty cattle guard at the gate, keeping my jacket on with the windows down. I love driving the 3 mile stretch to the shop. I barely notice the charred trunks of the pines and live oaks as they blow by because we so often use fire on this area that it is a natural part of the flow of work during the favorable seasons. I pay them no mind. As I pass beyond the steel gates into the shop yard, I lumber on past two large John Deer 6400 series tractors, a backhoe, a Ford F550 fire truck, a road compactor, and a motor grader almost as old as I am. I park under the canopy of a bay next to some older farm equipment and a new forest green painted bear trap.

The tailgate creaks open as I set it down, and I begin filling our hand-held drip torches, which need the diesel gas mixture to string fire along the ground. The fuel is mixed together so as to prevent too much of a flash with just the right amount of extended release of combustion to marry together with dry vegetation. These burn pots weigh about 15 or so pounds when they are full of fuel, complete with a wick at the end to stay lit during the days activities. I gather up and fill five of them, one for each all-terrain vehicle (ATV) near me and one for the utility terrain vehicle (UTV) beyond that has a 100-gallon plastic water tank full in its bed. These drip torches are the perfect tools for setting a good line of fire as you are stepping through the woods. All of this equipment helps us do what we need to do to manage this six thousand acre property, fire being the chief mechanism of action.

My favorite tool however, is the ATV-mounted torch that comes complete with a hefty ten gallon aluminum tank attached to a long wand reaching behind it that also has a wick at the end. The machine operates with a switch at the right grip handle acting as a simple on off push button for the pump. When ready, the pump delivers the burn fuel mix to the end of the flaming wand and out behind the rider in a steady stream like a burning arch straight to the ground.

I am alone with my thoughts as I finish the last minute preparations. I think back to the several days of work that it took to get to this point - the tractor mowing and disking, the planning, and the equipment preparation. If we get our authorization from the Florida Forest Service (FFS) this morning, the shop yard will roar to life with the sound of my coworkers approaching. I turn and look back up the road in anticipation.

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