Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fire, Fire Everywhere

(Written July, 2007)

It's hot here. The heat index is 110 today.

"This is getting expensive," I say to my boss, Jeff. "My pens keep exploding in the field. It makes me think I should taking data in pencil, like you've been bugging me to all season."

"Eh, don't bother," he says. "My mechanical pencil melted into a C-shape over my dashboard, and I can't use it."

How hot is it? It's too hot to burn! Not for the people, though. No one seems to care when the fire technicians faint. It's too hot for the trees. So burn season is over for now, and except for the occasional wildfire, we are done setting and fighting fires until December. This letter is a sketch of prescribed burning on the Gamelands.

There is always a lot more destruction in conservation than any practicing conservationist is likely to tell you about. It can be embarrassing to admit what really goes on. I'm not just talking about the small stuff, like how we run over young oak trees at high speed in our trucks for that great "splat" noise they make, or dare one another to kick open fire ant mounds and try to outrun the swarm that pours out of the break. There is much larger-scale destruction involved in what we do, and although it is necessary, it can be challenging to accept. Appearances are that we get funded to do exactly what we want people in the rest of the world to stop doing, that is, cutting down trees and burning what remains. When you think protection and preservation, you generally don't picture the conservationists enacting wholesale destruction of functioning ecosystems by poison, by mowing, chopping, slashing and burning, but that is exactly what we do. We call it ethical and scientific, and it is the only way to keep a fire-dependent ecosystem going.

Open-canopy pine savanna used to be the predominant ecosystem here. The one percent of it that still remains is partially contained within the Sandhills Gamelands where I work. A pine savanna is a few pine trees scattered around a big, wavy grassland of gold and green, where the sunlight reaches the ground, and there are barely any shrubs or woody debris of any sort. At first glance, all you see is grass and a few trees, but this particular ecosystem is the most biodiverse in North America. Many of the species here are quite rare, and exist only here, or maybe in one or two other places nearby.

With fire suppression, trees crowd in and close the canopy, so that you lose the grasslands and everything in them. The survivors are trees and deerflies, and it doesn't take a lot to see that the ecosystem is extinct under that tree monoculture. If your goal is to restore the pine savanna, the solution is to thin the trees and encourage the grass understory to recolonize. This process involves cutting down over half the pines, and removing, by fire or by roller-chopping, almost all of the hardwood oak and shrub understory. You also need to let fire run through every once in awhile, as many of the plant species are dependent on it to reseed. Frequent fire also consumes the fuel load on the ground, and prevents wildfires from burning too hot and killing everything permanently.

It sounds good to restore fire-dependent ecosystems with prescribed burns, and it looks great. The vegetative response to fire is so strong that within two weeks, you can count over forty species of plants springing back up and even flowering, and within a month, you might not know that the site has been burned. But it's still tough to accept how much you have to kill to bring the ecosystem into this state.

On one of the fires in June, I watched a cavity tree burst into flames because it had not been raked, and lost my temper and judgment. A cavity tree represents many years of effort by many birds that excavate deep holes into a dead tree, and is, at this time of year, likely full of owl and woodpecker chicks. This is one of the specific bird habitats we are trying to promote, and there it was, burning up as I watched. I couldn't throw enough dirt onto the tree to put the fire out, and was burning my hands trying to do it. The Jakes stood on the side, knowing exactly how this was going to play out, saying nothing. I was yelling at them to set up the pumper truck and put out the tree. Brady tried to calm me down, saying that even if we were to douse the tree with water, the ground conditions were so dry and pine so flammable that it would keep setting itself on fire until it had burnt up. Which is to say, we were too late. There was nothing left to do but yell and cry, which is what I set about doing as soon as I could find solitude. The rest of the guys seem "burnt out," shall we say, on the destruction, and don't tend to lose their cool.

There is a calculus of loss that pervades prescribed fire conservation, and everyone deals with it in a different way. Some of the destruction can seem comical. During the Burn-a-Thon last winter, the fire crew was debriefed on "flaming bunnies." Tragic though they may be, bunnies that catch on fire pose serious problems. Flaming lagomorphs shoot out of the prepped area into adjoining blocks, catching them on fire as well, and then the fire crew has any number of wildfires to deal with in addition to their intentional one. The first time I heard this, I grimaced, and then laughed harder than I have in a long time. "Oh, it's funny," says JakeTwo, "but it's no joke."

Much of the sixty-thousand acre Sandhills conservation area gets burned in a three-year rotation in a patchwork of burn blocks, leaving enough viable habitat for nesting and wintering wildlife. The way a block is burned will depend on the wind and weather conditions, but usually the technicians light a "backing fire" along its windward edge. A backing fire is a low-intensity burn that eats away at the leaf litter slowly in the direction opposite to the wind. This creates a stopping edge for the main fire and a wildlife break for scared bunnies. You can just about walk through the backing fire when it is going, though I would recommend taking it at more of a run. Birds will continue singing up in the trees. After the backing fire has burned a good swath off one side of the block and created a burn buffer, the techs may light off a "head fire" on the opposite side of the site. The head fire is much hotter, and because it travels in the same direction as the wind, it can sweep through an area incredibly fast. The head fire will have up to thirty-foot flames, and can burn up small trees, brush, and dead snags.

Almost every day during burn season, we have these huge, set-on-purpose, sometimes out-of-control fires that send enormous plumes of smoke up into the sky and lay thick haze over the downwind landscape. The smoke is piney, heady, campfire-like, rich and aphrodisiac. I always drive to the plume to see the flames. In this attraction, I am no more complicated than a moth.

You can tell which of our two Fire Bosses is burning on any given day based on the quality of the smoke that rises up in an opaque column over some part of the horizon. Bill will burn between 50 and 300 acres at a time, and he burns hot and fast. The plume is dark and concentrated, and is gone in a matter of hours. Bill likes to light head fires, which will kill the larger oaks (a good thing, in this context), but also every animal on the site (not a good thing). Like Bill himself, his fires are small, intense, and you know exactly what to expect. The fire crew respect Bill, and they enjoy burning with him.

Lincoln's fires are another story altogether. Lincoln's plume is lighter because his fires are cooler, with one or two dangerously dark spots where areas are burning too hot, basically indistinguishable from a wildfire. (We also have wildfires, mostly because soldiers from Fort Bragg practice shooting flares without consulting the fire threat assessment for the area.) He prefers backing fires, which makes him—but only for this reason—a more conservative burner. Backing fires are lower intensity and do not clear out the oaks as well, but allow some animals to get out of the way. Lincoln will back a fire through 400 acres over the course of a day and a night, and often burns a thousand acres or more if the fire jumps the firebreak or the wind changes direction. But like Lincoln, his fires can be dangerous, unpredictable, and wild.

The fires are also a lot of fun! I joined Lincoln's crew for a burn in the drains, and he invited me to help survey the site. I didn't know what this meant, so I climbed on back of his ATV, tucked my feet in as best I could, and wrapped my arms around his waist. I was a bit troubled by the next part, as I was not expecting to shoot straight through the line of fire and into the burn, but thankfully, I had no time to process this event. He lit a drip torch and balanced it on my leg. We punched through walls of smoke and moving lines of blaze, running over downed trees at top speed and pouring out a swath of fire behind us. The fire line rushed up behind us in tall, coursing flames. My eyes were watering too much to see clearly, and there's not very much to breathe in a fire, so I just held on as best I could, and hid behind Lincoln's shoulder to shield myself from the roasting heat and smoke, breathing through his collar. He drove on, impervious to all these harms, and lit off the rest of the block behind us. I have never met anyone more reckless. I am enthralled.

Flames are mesmerizing but perilous. You want to be closer to their light and flickering dance, but they will burn you. As the flames consume grasses and ground cover, they turn the landscape to charcoal and spread out with the wind. Their movement invites chase, but their heat will throw you back. The air buckles and snaps, and heat hits you as painfully and as surely as well-aimed punches. Your skin stings and begins to cook, and you have fractions of seconds to decide where you need to be in case the wind changes, or in case it doesn't. Should the wind falter for a moment, you will find yourself in a choking sea of smoke, and you will find that there is really very little you can do to change your fate.

Standing next to a fire, a really big fire, will cause tempers to emerge from your personality that you might not ever have suspected were in you. Many things that would otherwise sound like bad behavior seem quite reasonable when you are standing next to sweeping, volatile peril. I am discovering loyalty to and respect for Fire Bosses I do not completely trust, though I believe from experience that loyalty outweighs trust in situations that are potentially life threatening. I also find that I feel much more alive on a fire than might be polite to run on about. Anyway, I'm having fun. I have until December to dwell on all this, or at least until the next Fort Bragg flare exercise.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Diggs Tract

I have been invited along on machete duty. I am standing at the field edge, balancing my knife vertically on its point in the palm of my hand. This is not unpainful, but I am getting good at it. My boss has invited three biologists from the Wildlife Commission (including me) and representatives from various other agencies to join him at the Pee Dee River. The purpose of this meeting is to convince the North Carolina Land Trust that we need to purchase the tract of land on which we are standing.

This is the river where my coworkers spent a day variously drowning one another and wrestling catfish. We are looking at the last public access point to this river in the county, and the land that surrounds it is a 1600-acre block that has never been developed. Tracts this large and this wild do not exist here anymore. We are usually lucky to find a partially farmed 500-acre tract, with a couple of buildings already on it. This tract will cost us four million dollars, and even if we apply for grants and funding, there is no guarantee that the owners will not sell this site to a higher bidder, as development is almost always more profitable than conservation.

The players in this game are chatting, in expensive and marvelously clean field gear, on the flat, open roadway. It is a beautiful day, a mere 90 degrees, which is a relief after the previous week. We have pulled off the road into a particularly lush blackberry patch, and there is an understanding that no one will speak until we have all had our fill. But now Brady, Kendrick and I are hopping around restlessly, waiting for the go-ahead to explore the site. When Jeff has finished the first part of the tour, we head down towards what has been designated a “high-priority” wetland, picking out arrowheads from the red clay path along the way. As if showing off, an arrestingly beautiful black-and-white striped Eastern King snake slips past us. We walk for a half a mile before reaching a barricade of briers.

“If Erica will help us out, we can take a look at the wetlands.” This is my cue. I swing and slash. I am cutting a path about 200 meters long, and wide enough to accommodate people who will not negotiate with thorns. I have never before been chosen for anything based on my muscle, and now I am beginning to question my boss’s sense.

I have chosen this particular machete for its tone. When you swing a machete and cut something cleanly, there is a “shing!” like the movie sound effect of a sword being unsheathed. Mine is like a church bell, flattened and in miniature, with rich overtones that spiral up into the next octaves. Swinging a machete is a skill that involves steady concentration and moment-to-moment judgment. At some swing-angles, you can bludgeon the vegetation out of the way without killing it. Some angles will cut the vegetation, if you have correctly gauged how resilient the stems are, and hit them with the right part of the blade. Many angles will simply cut you, and so it is prudent to practice in Kevlar chaps. “You’ve gotten really good at this,” my boss compliments me. Everyone will tell me I’m a good scientist, but this praise is different. I glow, in trickles.

We are finally at the muddy boundary of a field of cattails, indicating deeper water. We offer to show the landtrusters how to equip waders for the next part of the tour. We only have two functioning pairs, and Jeff will go in as he is. This is a brave (read: absurd) thing to do, and the rest of his biologists are exploring the neighboring hillside. “I can go in like this. My boots are waterproof,” says the female landtruster, with the untroubled confidence of someone who has never tested this assertion. There is no way she has ever walked through a swamp before. Perhaps her boots will protect her toes when she is hip-deep in muck, but I offer her the waders anyway, as well as a lesson in getting unstuck from mudholes. Mudholes can suck you straight down if you struggle, and many field-biologists working alone have been killed this way in Alaska, even recently. “Oh yeah, everything will kill you in Alaska,” says Kendrick, when I bring this up.

Jeff gives us the go-ahead. It is like opening a jar of butterflies, and we flit off erratically towards our individual interests. Brady zips up the hill, towards a reptilian rustle. Kendrick and a botanist from the Ashboro zoo are discussing stem shapes and leaf attachments on everything they pass, identifying everything in a patter of Latin and English. They are using their binoculars backwards, and pulling leaves in past the focal length of the eyepiece while looking through the large end; a field-ready magnifying glass. I slink off towards shade.

After a few minutes, the landtrusters have made headway into the swamp. Brady is scuttling down the hill, holding an enormous turtle, a yellow-bellied slider, who is returning to the water after laying her eggs at the top. Kendrick has disappeared entirely. I give him my “wo-wickery-chee-ew” location whistle now and again, which will not scare off wildlife, but will tell me that my partner is still with the group, and has not done the literal version of falling down the rabbit hole of this biological Wonderland. He returns a “witchy-witchy-where-are-you?” of the hooded warbler from various points, clever because the bird fits the habitat and the mnemonic fits the purpose. “Am I hearing a hooded warbler?” asks the female landtruster, down in the swamp. She knows her birds, but probably from recordings, as a human whistle never quite reproduces an avian one. I am impressed nevertheless.

Kendrick is making an inventory of all the species he sees on this site, and is lagging behind, but is up over a hundred species of grasses, forbs, flowers, trees, amphibians, reptiles and birds when he finally rejoins us. He and the botanist are debating over a plant in front of them, because a few of the species here are so uncommon, possibly even endangered, that they have not encountered them in the wild in their many years of study. “Take a sample to identify,” I suggest. “I don’t think so,” says the botanist. They refuse to take anything off the site, in some sort of biologists’ More-Ethical-Than-Thou code of honor. “Are you kidding me? This place could be lawns and houses in six months, and you aren’t going to figure out what’s here while we have the chance to get grant money?” She shrugs. I chalk this behavior up to misplaced loyalties, and slice down the unrare thing next to me, with what might be a careless flick of my machete.

We head back up the clay path, carved by water rather than machine. My head is hurting with the first signs of heatstroke. The air is so humid that sweating does nothing to cool you down. “Doing field work is great,” says the male landtruster. “I love this. If I could do it all over, I would do what these guys do.” On the ride back, the biologists are vying with each other, loudly, on who gets to give him our job. He is in the other truck, and we have only barely made it into ours before complaining about his statement. We are dirty, bleeding from briars, bruised, insect-bitten, ridden with poison ivy, oak and sumac, hot, dehydrated and sunburnt, and, adding insult to copious injuries, underpaid, uninsured, and overworked. But we are not in this condition because of this trip. What we have just done is gone outside. Fieldwork for research purposes can be somewhat more strenuous.

I think that we have made an impression on the landtrusters. They will never get as dirty as we do, at least not on purpose, and so they may never get a chance to experience the wilder parts of what is out here, but they are responding to our excitement over what exists, for this moment, on this piece of land. They are soaking in the education we are trying to provide, and judging, rephrasing it in their minds. They need to be able to present to boards and councils and landowners and developers, and people who have never heard of something like and Eastern King snake, and are probably afraid of snakes and indifferent to what hunters call “tweety birds.” They are going to recreate this experience with charm and flattery for those who control money, property, and the future of conservation in North Carolina.

You always read, “Habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate.” Alarming? —This begs the question of who is being alarmed. Are you? Well, here we are, standing on some of the nicest habitat I have ever seen, and alarms aside, it can be very difficult to get people to care enough to rein in development, or even recognize that there are real environmental losses associated with each and every building or road that gets built. Even people who are conservation-minded have trouble identifying what wildlife they are seeing and hearing, and it’s tough to appreciate what you can’t name or distinguish. It’s even tougher to realize what’s gone, if you haven’t bothered to examine what once was.

Brady and Kendrick and I are giddy with our good fortune. We know what we are looking at, and it is incredible. The fact that it may be gone in a few months is making us goofy and playful while we have the chance to experience what is here. I chew young sassafras leaves and play my machete-balancing game again. We take a last look at the river access on the site. A Red-Shouldered Hawk flies over our heads, checking us out. A Belted Kingfisher wings off in another direction, chattering noisily over our presence. There is sun, and breeze, and water, smooth and clear and full of freshwater clams and fish that were thought to be extinct, and even those funny catfish that attract noodlers and people who love to be out here as much as we do. The group stops talking about money, and starts talking about how good the air smells.

Even after spending years in the field, there is something new here for me, as well. After an entire season of hearing them, I finally see, for the first time in my life, a secretive, but stunningly yellow Prothonotary Warbler.

“Wow.” I point the bird out to Kendrick. “It’s more beautiful than I imagined.”

“Yup. Sure is.”