Not the Princess Bride’s Fire Swamp: Prescribed Burn 3

Our third prescribed burn this year was scheduled for October 18th. The goal was to burn a several acre cranberry bog at the behest of the owners of the Dry Swamp Bog organic farm in Orleans. They seemed to be of the opinion that burning the bog would clear out a variety of undesirable species that they didn’t want to control using herbicides while also reinvigorating the soil.

Never having done something like this before, and having a minimum of terrestrial farming experience, I was initially skeptical that we’d even be able to get the fire started (Bogs aren’t exactly on my top 10 list for ‘most flammable places’). On the other hand, I’m all in favor of reducing herbicide use (especially in wetlands areas) when possible, and was completely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Before our walk around of the property. Most of what you can see here was our target area.

Before our walk around of the property. Most of what you can see here was our target area.

At any rate, after loading three trucks and a fire engine with all the gear we’d need to light a bog on fire, we set out and arrived on the property before noon. The first thing we noticed (as we should have) was that the entire bog area sat only a few inches above the waterline.

Ok, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The area we were to burn was surrounded on three of four sides with trenches that were full of water. Those trenches formed natural control line, although as we found out, they weren’t perfect.
Sizing up the property our boss found one place in particular, a corner where there were nearby structures, that deserved extra protection and parked out one fire engine there on the off chance a few unlucky firebrands crossed water filled trenches.

Our very-nearly-mandatory pre-ignition group photo. The brown stalks in the foreground were actually the only vegetative matter in the bog that burned consistently. The cranberry bushes certainly didn't. Which, come to think about it, was probably just what the farmers wanted.

Our very-nearly-mandatory pre-ignition group photo. The brown stalks in the foreground were actually the only vegetative matter in the bog that burned consistently. The cranberry bushes certainly didn’t. Which, come to think about it, was probably just what the farmers wanted.

Due to the nature of the cranberry bog: the wet, the shade covering half of it, the sparse/low vegetation. We were to use fusees (effectively longer lasting road flares used to ignite material by hand) and a handheld torch fueled by a backpack mounted propane canister  We also had four backpack pumps that we were to use for control and mop-up after the burn.

Having the cannisters mounted on our backs saved us the trouble of lugging them around on dollies. However it did mean that we had to ditch our IA packs.

Having the propane canisters mounted on our backs saved us the trouble of lugging them around on dollies. However it did mean that we had to ditch our IA packs. The torches were lit manually, using the conveniently provided strikers we ended up tying to the frames.

As we’d feared/expected, the bog didn’t burn particularly well. The bearers of the two torches walked back and forth across the burn area using the long-handled flamethrowers to place dots of flame every 10 feet or so, creating a tight grid of small burning patches. The rest of us helped fill in the remaining space by using the fusees to light particularly promising patches of dried plants and by physically moving flaming material into green (unburned) territory.

How sweet does this look?! Seriously, its lucky we brought these along, the fall sun wasn't really putting out enough heat to make our job easy.

How sweet does this look?! Seriously, its lucky we brought these along, the fall sun wasn’t really putting out enough heat to make our job easy.

Here Matt is 'dotting' the burn area. Behind him the dots of fire he's laid down already are creeping along the ground.

Here Matt is ‘dotting’ the burn area. Behind him the dots of fire he’s laid down already are creeping along the ground.

Some of the plants in the bog, like this Pitch Pine sapling, simply weren't going to ignite on a day like the one we were burning on. It would have taken a much more intense fire on a much drier day to get the pine in this picture to burn.

Some of the plants in the bog, like this Pitch Pine sapling, simply weren’t going to ignite on a day like the one we were burning on. It would have taken a much more intense fire on a much drier day to get the pine in this picture to burn.

The only snag came when, as the burn boss had predicted, a few firebrands made the jump across the trench near the lone structure adjacent to the bog. There they burned merrily for nearly a minute before they were drowned by a fast acting firefighter standing by the engine’s internal pump. I wish I’d been nearby to get pictures of that sequence of events, but I was busy carrying burning grass around on the other side of the bog at the time and only heard about it over the radio.

The flames were low for the duration of the burn. Again, the effect of the sun on the fire's intensity was pronounced, as you can sort of see in this picture.

The flames were low for the duration of the burn. Again, the effect of the sun on the fire’s intensity was pronounced, as you can sort of see in this picture.

Mop up was minimal after such a low intensity blaze, but we still spent the better part of half an hour at the end of the day extinguishing every last whisper of smoke that had been rising from the field.

As I mentioned above, the only fuels in the burn area that consistently ignited were the tall brown stalks. The cranberry plants themselves were pretty much immune to the attentions of the propane torches. While this made for a somewhat low-key experience from my perspective, I can’t help but think that the end result of the prescribed burn was fairly close to what the farmers that had asked for our help had hoped would happen. It will be interesting to see how this property recovers in the spring.

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Posted on December 18, 2012, in Americorps Cape Cod and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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