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Fear on the Fireline: My First Real Encounter - Part 3 of 4

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

As I wind my way through the network of roads that connect the property, I pass by a wide-open dove field and a couple of wildlife food plots. I begin to slow the machine to a stop, and kill the engine while coasting quietly to the northern corner of the burn area. I look around and notice that the wind has already picked up, stirring the leaves around me in small swirls that disappear into the air. My mind tells me that this is a good sign, because it is before 10 AM, and we already have wind. We need that wind to carry the fire.

I check my protective gear one last time before we begin. I glance again at the map that was handed out to everyone during the briefing. We will have a northeast wind today, which is nothing out of the ordinary especially since we recently had a front move through that gave us about an inch of rain. The temperature should be up to 65°F by mid afternoon, and I am anticipating a pretty straightforward assignment while on the ATV. I look on down the designated fire lines and see that they are still looking good with plenty of disked up soil from the tractor work that was done recently. Even small amounts of flammable pine needles can provide a pathway for fire to snake across and out of the burn area if someone has their back turned long enough.

We begin by lighting a test fire that we let burn in a small area of gallberry which in theory should tell a good story of how the fire will behave in the fuels on the site. I see the gentle column move upward past the pines and watch as it begins to travel Southwest. We all watch as the small, almost ceremonial flames crackle and spread easily through the green vegetation. All of us group up together and warm our hands in the cold, probably the same way that our ancestors did for generations before us. We wait a few minutes to watch the small dot of flame grow bigger, slowly but steadily backing inward towards the wind. Everything looks good, so the signal is given for me to begin lighting a solid line along the downwind side to get the fire moving into the wind evenly up through the area. I also have help from other crew members to get the downwind side on the burn area boundary safely lit while preventing it from spotting over across the disked up lane that designates the boundary.

The wind begins to blow hard against me as I am lighting, creating a much wider line that creeps onward into the breeze. The burn unit is divided into two sections, cut roughly in half by a wide double-track. The fire lines are not straight, so we have to take great care to keep the fire inside. After about 20 minutes of putting down a solid line, I cut the burn fuel pump off and turn back around to check on the line I have put down. Another crew member is patrolling as well. We wait until there is about about 15 yards of burnt vegetation, or "black" as we call it, before the next phase of work begins. The wind continues to press hard, laying black smoke across the lane that worries me some, but nothing comes of it.

"Go ahead and step on in there", our burn boss calls over the radio, so I oblige. I turn the ATV into the woods and crash over a couple palmetto bushes to get into position. On goes the pump and after turning the 4 wheel drive on, I am off. I plow through the gallberries, over logs, and across heavy brush. I begin setting down spots behind me, which quickly grow into larger fires as I wind around the trees and through head-high brush. It makes things hard to see in front of me, so I watch the line of smoke from the backing fire to keep my bearings in this jungle-like undergrowth. I am calm and make calculated movements that push the machine to its limits.

As I am working back and forth, the rest of the crew patrols the boundaries while continuing to stay beyond the spots I am putting down. They decide to go ahead and pull up the flanks on up past me since we are having such a steady push from the wind. I see the line of fire that now becomes my stop and turn around point. In an instant however, the wind dies completely. This critical change in the weather completely escapes my situational awareness.

My focus had drifted to a small opening that I was trying to get fire to move through, and I had taken my eyes off of the main fire in front of me. The flames ahead stand straight up for a short while, and then become fuel-driven in the absence of the wind. Over the course of a few minutes, given the absence of wind, the flames change direction and begin to lean over into the heavy brush, heading my way. Suddenly, I realize I am heading straight toward a wall of fire with a lot of fire already behind me, which completely covers up my potential route of escape. In an instant, with the fire converging all around me, I feel the sudden cold grip of fear.

Scrub Fire, Ocala Nat'l Forest, Circa 2017

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