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Fear on the Fireline: My First Real Encounter - Part 2 of 4

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

As I am filling up the equipment and double checking engine oil, I hear the rest of the crew begin to arrive. I breathe a sigh of relief, because it looks like we have our permit. Our plan is to burn a total of 180 acres of mostly mesic flatwoods down near the several-mile-wide floodplain of the St. Johns River. As my supervisor parks near me and steps out of the cab, he looks my way and asks: “Did you bring the Kestrel?”. I nod in the affirmative. A Kestrel is a hand-held weather monitoring instrument that is compact yet intricate, much like the bird. A designated crew member will need to update all of us every hour or so throughout the day to keep us current on any unexpected changes in temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed among other things. Even the slightest weather shift will not go unnoticed. It commands full focus and attention from everyone because of how it impacts the behavior of a fire.

Without any words passing between us, the other four crew members gather around to hear the plan for the day, or in fancier terms, the crew briefing. My supervisor will be the burn manager for today, and he steps forward in the circle to start the discussion. He is a tall Georgia born UGA alum that is among the most intelligent, yet soft spoken individuals I have ever met. He prefers to keep a low profile, which is why he has spent the last 15 years of his life living off the hard road taking care of this property for the State of Florida. His outfit, much like ours, consists of a yellow nomex long-sleeved shirt, green nomex pants, leather boots, complete with a durag for his head to wear beneath his bright yellow hard hat.

As we look through the maps being passed around, he goes through a step-by-step process of providing us with details that we need to know to be effective. We hear from him what our objectives are, whether there are any hazards to be aware of, predicted weather for the day, assignments for each of us, techniques needed for igniting, radio channel specifics, safety protocol, and what the process will be to ensure that the fire is safely contained in the area after the day’s work is complete. As he does some gesturing while talking, I see the eleven-page document in his left hand fluttering about. I know that this is his legal form we call a prescription that ties into the rules and standards of broadcast burning based on state law. A hand-written numerical series on the document indicates the authorization number that he scratched on it an hour ago while on the phone with FFS. If there is no authorization number, there will be no burn.

As the briefing comes to a close, this normally fun loving group subtly assumes a more somber tone. The last part of the talk covered safety for the day, and we are contemplating it. We all know that there are risks and try to acknowledge them in our minds. At the conclusion, we load up simultaneously. The shop yard comes to life again as four ATVs and the fire engine with the UTV trailering behind crank up in unison.

In an instant, we are back on the dusty road winding our way past creeks, woods and pastures. As a few startled ibis take flight from a roadside ditch in front of me, the cold breeze begins to makes my eyes water. My job today will be ignition from the roughly 700 pound ATV that has a torch full of fuel attached just behind my rear end like the cantle of a big metal saddle. In my excitement I run the throttle wide open, creating a white pillowing cloud behind me. The fire engine brings up the rear as the rest of the crew hustles onward.

ATV on Patrol, Circa 2014

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