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There's nothing to fear with fire–except the worst
Prescribed and controlled burns are great tools, but command respect
Fire is a helluva thing.
Seems like odd wording to start a column that publishes on Easter, I know, but you’ll forgive a puny human for knowing no better way to encapsulate the enormity and breadth and danger and destructiveness and life-renewing power of fire.
From the ashes comes life renewed.
Making the ashes, that’s a whole other deal. When lightning ignites forest fire, that’s God’s awesome forces at work.
When a human lights a matchstick?
Fire happens and you stand back and feel the heat and consider the good and the bad and the thrill and worry about the potential devastation, and the soul and the heart move beyond eloquence to leave the mind somewhat numbed and, mouth agape.
And what comes from my lowly yap is, “Well, ain’t that just a helluva thing?”
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I had this happy “fire is a wonderful and exciting thing” column in mind. It is an invaluable land management tool. But when I called some state forestry folks after I had some fun lighting fires on my friend Shane Bevel’s woodland property in Northeast Oklahoma, well, they had their hands full.
The wind was howling at 60 mph, embers were traveling, and accidental sparks turned into roaring blazes. It didn’t feel like a great time to write something encouraging folks to burn. Instead, I put up a little Instagram post telling folks to be careful out there.
A few days earlier a neighbor had to call the volunteer firefighters out to his place after brush-hogging some pasture.
Grass, mower blade, rocks, spark, wind, poof!
A few days later, after we burned at Shane’s place. I learned my good friend Jack Morris lost his barn on that day of 60 mph winds. ATVS, his old Jeep, some tack, chainsaws and other tools and equipment, loads of decoys, and irreplaceable old family photos; all gone.
It was a cool barn, held everything a cowboy and a hunting guide might need on any given day.
Wind and fire turned that barn into a gigantic blowtorch. It melted tools. It turned a Polaris ATV into a skeleton. It makes my heart ache just thinking about it. Rebuilding, if it is rebuilt, won’t be easy, Jack said.
I lit my first controlled burn with Jack, up in Kansas, when I was still pretty fresh off the plane from Alaska. The field—one where I saw turkeys, deer, and shot quail—was contained for fire with fire breaks on two sides and a county road and creek on the other.
A light wind made match lighting a little tricky, and we faced the breeze, standing in the firebreak. It didn’t take long though, and the fire rose in the grass and started creeping its way, slowly, upwind and away from the firebreak.
It was fun! There is a little pyromaniac in all of us.
Burning the hardwoods with Shane last week was a little different. He had enjoyed the back-breaking fun of clearing most of the firebreaks around his camp and on lines around his 40 acres with a backpack leaf blower. We did a couple of short ones on the day we walked around with a drip torch, blower, and rake.
It was kind of amazing, how much you can accomplish with a powerful leaf blower in a woodland covered with a thick layer of oak leaves and pine needles. It seemed all too easy to find bare dirt.
With a permanent camp on the place, Shane’s concerns were at least twofold. He wants to manage the habitat for maximum wildlife use. He also wants to keep things burned back so his camp doesn’t end up going the way of Jack’s barn.
Fire is indeed a tool we should not fear, but must respect. Fear holds us back. We can fear lightning and fear God but there is no cause to fear a matchstick or a drip torch. We can control those things and Oklahoma has great public resources to help you do it.
So, light a match. Do some good.
The place to start is with the Forestry Services Division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry. Everything you need to know, the references to learn more, and contacts to call all are centered at the state forestry division. The website is ag.ok.gov/divisions/forestry-services.
Shane consulted with wildlife folks, local fire officials, and his neighbors to know what to light and when. He borrowed a couple of drip torches and we set the woods on fire. His neighbors were out burning their acreage at the same time.
There is a certain pleasure in lighting a fire in the woods and knowing—for the most part—it can burn as much as it wants with the odds it will get out of control being very, very slim.
Well, it’s lit!
Man, that little fire is pretty damned hot!
This is kinda fun.
It is, kinda.
Whoa! Was that a tree falling?
What about that line over there? We OK?
I think we’re all good.
This IS fun!
That’s kinda how it goes.
A day passes into a smoky night with yellow bits still smoldering and crackling out there in the woods, dawn comes with a landscape charred black and ready to give rise to new life.