A controlled burn is conducted at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in April 2020. The effort is led primarily by a volunteer force. (B.R. Downing / Clarion)
A controlled burn is conducted at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in April 2020. The effort is led primarily by a volunteer force.

B.R. Downing / Clarion

Into the Field: Volunteer Opportunities in Environmental Sciences

A prescribed burn at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center is one of many opportunities

April 21, 2021

It was a Tuesday night when I got the message from the burn boss, the burn would take place on that Thursday. Two days is not a lot of notice but that is the nature of a prescribed burn. Participants not only need to be trained, they need to be ready. There are only short-recommended windows in the spring and fall when conditions are optimal and, when dealing with a force of nature like fire, you want things to be optimal.

Every year, with the exception of spring 2020, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) in Monona, Wisconsin conducts prescribed burns on its prairies and the adjacent areas. Jon Traver, this year’s burn boss, gave a pretty concise rationale for the reasons that these burns are conducted. “Prescribed burns, or controlled burns, are important land management measures that involve setting small, planned fires. This is done to control invasive species, promote new growth of native species and reduce the risk of wildfires.”

Traver’s words are straight to the point, much as his management style. This is a quality you want in a burn boss. There is much more to the story behind why we burn though, and how it is an obligation of our stewardship of the land.

If there is something akin to sacred for people who study ecology and view Aldo Leopold’s ideas regarding a land ethic as the way humans should be, stewards of the biotic systems we inhabit, then participating in a prescribed burn at an education center that bears his name would likely qualify as that. Founded in 1994, the Also Leopoldo Nature Center mission statement reads as such, “engage and educate current and future generations, empowering them to respect, protect, and enjoy the natural world,” (https://aldoleopoldnaturecenter.org/). The relationship ALNC has with the grounds it inhabits is integral to the success of that mission. With its roughly 50 acres of land, ranging from prairies, oak savanna, woodlands and wetlands, a person can easily see why the stewardship of a place where Leopold’s land ethic is taught becomes one and the same as the teaching itself.

The role prescribed of burns play in the stewardship piece of Leopold’s land ethic is hard to understate. Leopold began his career as a forester in an era when forests and public lands were protected from fire, as stands of timber were viewed as a valuable resource. However, The Great Fire of 1910, also known as the “Big Blowup”, began to change things. Occurring during Leopold’s second year as a forester, the cumulative grassland and forest fires in the U.S. burned over three million acres of land and sent ash aloft all the way to Greenland (https://foresthistory.org/).

In essence the story goes like this: the U.S. Forest Service had created a policy of suppression of fire, which in turn short circuited the biotic processes of the land, then resulting in more fuel for the fires across the landscape, primary plant growth ceased, and the landscape changed. Ultimately this resulted in a lot of really big fires. The U.S. Forest Service learned that nature ultimately wins when absolute suppression is the policy, and the cost for humans and the landscape will always go up in the process. There is a quote from Leopold on page 262 of “A Sand County Almanac” that seems to suit the situation well; “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” Absolute fire suppression on a macro scale turned out to be, otherwise.

Fire is a natural process, and through Leopold’s lens it becomes clear that in order to preserve a biotic community there has to be a facilitation of those natural processes, even the process of fire. Although never quite our best friend, fire can definitely be our worst enemy. Humans have a tortured history with fire; It cooks our food, it brings us heat in colder climes, in addition to keeping predators away. Fun fact, there is even a school of thought that believes the ability to cook meat is what allowed the human brain to become the complex organ that is deciphering the words I am putting to text right now. It can also be unpredictable, it’s always dangerous and sometimes lethal. In an incredibly sad irony, I should disclose that it is also the indirect cause of Leopold’s death; he suffered a fatal heart attack while battling a wild brush fire at his home at the age of 61.

After that somber note and a small lecture in why people utilize prescribed burns on certain landscapes, I am sure you are wondering if I am ever going to talk about the actual burn that I documented; well, just as fast as a wildfire can flame up, I am going to make that pivot.

The burn crew that day was made up of volunteers and ALNC staff. All with at least some previous experience and some with decades, such as Traver. It was not a large crew by any means, but in a situation like this, experience outweighs numbers. One wrong decision and something might, quite literally, go up in flames. So, a burn plan was made, personal protective equipment (PPE) was donned by all, and the remaining equipment was prepared. After a quick introduction to the film crew and one more check of the plan, Traver made the call to the Monona Fire Department to let them know the burn was going to commence.

The term prescribed burn is much as it sounds, you are literally choosing to set an area on fire and then control that fire in a way that achieves your goal for the fire safely. To get this started the participants use a device called a drip-torch and matches. A participant uses matches to get a small patch of vegetation lit and then walks a perimeter line dripping ignited liquid petroleum onto vegetation in a controlled manner. This creates a backfire perimeter that the head fire (when lit) will burn into.

The fire starts off slow but that is by design. The ALNC crew started off with a small prairie that was less than 10 acres in size. As the burner was setting the backfire I was trailing behind, six to eight feet from the fire. The prairie grass started to crackle, and I could feel the heat on my face, the smoke started to get to me a little bit. At this point it is worth mentioning that I was strictly an observer for this piece. As an observer I was responsible for my own PPE, and I was underprepared. Even though I had two masks on, a la Covid-19, this was hardly suitable for catching a gust of smoke straight to the face; not to mention that my eyes were watering because I did not have a face shield. The fire does not pause though, just because you came underprepared. So, after the backfire was set, Traver began setting the head fire. At this point, I got my composure and came up behind Traver in the center of the prairie. I kept getting footage until it came time for me to clear from the area. Honestly, it was not until this point that it got a little scary.

The scary part was not that I had been close to the fire, I had retreated quickly and safely. The scary part was the exponential speed with which the fire had grown. By the time the fire was well set, it was over. It is easy to relay these things through words but witnessing it is something ephemeral. There is a certain amount of elation when you think “wow, I got out right when I should have,” and this elation comes because you know if did not get out when you were supposed to, the consequences could have been dire. As I looked down at the smoldering prairie from the observation deck, I was glad Traver did have decades of experience. That experience is important, and the fact that ALNC allows volunteers to get experience at their burns is something that, once again, of cannot be understated. (See Below)

As for the rest of the day, the remaining sections that were burned proceeded in an orderly fashion. Set the backfire, use backpack pumps and bladder bags to set a wet line, make sure there are no blow-ups, and then go back and check for any embers or hotspots that need putting out. The one unexpected event of the day was the oak tree that caught on fire. Live oak trees generally do not catch fire and that is how we get succession from prairies to oak savannahs, but I digress. I say unexpected because I did not expect it. Traver did. He knew the tree was partially dead and had planned for it, so he pulled the water tender around (a John Deere UTV with a tank on it) and put out all the flaming areas of the tree. Plan made, plan executed.

It was not until I got home and took off the only legit pieces of PPE I had on that day besides my pants, those being my boots, that I realized that I had char marks on them from the flames licking at my feet. At some point I had gotten a little too close to one of the backfires. It was unsettling. I had chosen to document a part of Leopold’s legacy, and there was a certain degree of danger that accompanied that. As important as this kind of work is, training is undeniably necessary, even as an observer.

So, for all the students in fire programs in local colleges and universities there will be contact information below so you can get that experience that is crucial to work like this; and to all the untrained, this volunteer opportunity is not for you, yet. You can either get some training in the future or thank one of these stewards of the land. They do meaningful work, they deserve it.

Aldo Leopold Nature Center Contact: Brenna Holzhauer, Director of Operations & Strategic Initiatives [email protected]

Madison College Fire Service program: https://madisoncollege.edu/fire-service-training

University of Wisconsin – Madison / Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture: https://dpla.wisc.edu/la-668-restoration-ecology/

WDNR Fire Management page: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/ForestFire

U.S. Forest Service terminology page: https://www.fs.fed.us/nwacfire/home/terminology.html

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Into the Field: Volunteer Opportunities in Environmental Sciences