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Prescribed Fire on Cape Cod: Pilgrim Heights

More pictures. This set comes from our first “larger” prescribed burn, carried out at Pilgrim Heights in Truro.

Our test fire / lunch break

Our test fire / lunch break

Days when the atmosphere was relatively unstable (in this case shown by the clear blue skies) allowed the smoke to rise quickly off the ground.

Days when the atmosphere was relatively unstable (in this case shown by the clear blue skies) allowed the smoke to rise quickly off the ground.

Instead of ringing this burn with a hose lay we relied upon a road that looped around the burn area, when it was time to mop up we drove two of our engines around the loop and hosed down everything we could reach.

Instead of ringing this burn with a hose lay we relied upon a road that looped around the burn area, when it was time to mop up we drove two of our engines around the loop and hosed down everything we could reach.

The next day we returned to the burn area to search it again for residual smoke. We did this every time we burned as an added precaution; embers are remarkably resilient and can smoke quietly for days (potentially reigniting an insufficiently burned area) if not dowsed.

The next day we returned to the burn area to search it again for residual smoke. We did this every time we burned as an added precaution; embers are remarkably resilient and can smoke quietly for days (potentially reigniting an insufficiently burned area) if not dowsed.

Prescribed Fires in the Spring

We were blessed with good, consistent weather all Spring. It was cool and dry, and over the course of the last few months we managed to get in over thirty (30) days of prescribed burning. I’m not exactly sure, but I think that the actual number is getting close to forty at this point.

A slowly advancing line of fire being carried through the leaf litter. The direction of the smoke shows that the fire is actually backing across the forest floor.

Watching a slowly advancing line of fire being carried through the leaf litter.

Much like the pile burning over the winter, the mechanics of broadcast burning quickly became business as usual. Our standard operating procedure relied heavily on setting up looping hose-lays around the burn area before even lighting a test fire. While this strategy takes a little while to set up, it also greatly increases the safety of the whole operation. And in the long run I’m sure it made our lives a great deal easier.

To set up those crucial loops we used inch-and-a-half hose as our trunk line and every 100 feet we split off a 50 foot length of 3/4 inch hose. Optimally, that meant that we had complete coverage of the burn perimeter. In actual practice that wasn’t always true, but adding more 3/4 inch hose to the end of existing lines was a trivial fix to a generally non-pressing problem.

After the hose lay was in place we’d light a test fire  and hold a briefing while watching it burn. Running the test fire simultaneously with the briefing is (apparently) somewhat atypical, but it did give us the advantage of being able to directly observe what the fire-behavior was likely to be before we began proper ignitions. It also sped up the day by getting two crucial steps in the burn process over with at once.

Test fire completed we’d go about the actual burn — using drip torches to lay down lines of fire, then using the 3/4 inch hose to extinguish one “edge” of the thickening line. The other edge was allowed to (hopefully slowly) burn across the unit until until it hit another line of fire coming from the other direction and went out from lack of fuel to burn.

Once there was no more active flame in the unit we’d use the hose ringing the area to soak everything still smoking, spending extra time making sure that rotting logs and other areas where embers could be smoldering were well and truly saturated.

After the last smoking embers were drowned we’d break up the hose-lay, roll everything up, pull our warning signs off the sides of the road, and head home.

Almost every prescribed fire we lit all year followed that same basic formula. Therefore, I’m going to just skip describing most of them and move on to posting the pictures and talking about the few times when things were — for one reason or another — different.

Laying down flanking lines of fire to increase a burns rate of spread.

Laying down flanking lines of fire to increase a burns rate of spread.

For instance, all of the pictures in this update were taken at a burn we carried out at an old Boy-Scout camp. The Boy Scouts sold the campsites to the Cape Cod National Seashore a few years back and our burn was step two in preparing the site to be used as a special group campground in the future. We also spent the better part of a day dismantling most of the old camp’s decrepit structures.

This burn was a little bit different since there were already defined paths all around the burn unit. Those paths were free of fuel (needles and brush in this case) and provided a secure enough fire-line that we didn’t need to surround the burn area with a hose lay. Instead we carried in 5-gallon backpack pumps and used them to discourage the flames from crossing the paths.

More flanking strips burning brightly in the smoky haze.

More flanking strips burning brightly in the smoky haze.

Doane Rock: Prescribed Burn 5

Our fifth prescribed burn took place in the afternoon of the same day we conducted our fourth. Tactically, it was considerably more involved than the burn in the morning. Again, we split into two groups and walked the two flanks of the burn area laying down boxes of flame in tandem. However, this time we also lit point ignitions in the interior of the burn area. This strategy, coupled with our use of a backing fire throughout the burn, led to a much more complete burn than we achieved earlier in the day.

Our flank of the burn area. Like the first burn of the day we spread the flame by making consecutive rectangles of fire. Each rectangle, once its center had burned out, contributed to the line of black earth insulating the active fire from the area we did not intend to burn.

Our flank of the burn area. Like the first burn of the day we spread the flame by making consecutive rectangles of fire. Each rectangle, once its center had burned out, contributed to the line of black earth insulating the active fire from the area we did not intend to burn.

It was remarkable to me how efficient “drawing” the rectangles on the ground with the drip torch was at creating a solid black perimeter. Once the rectangle is drawn the heat from the flames causes the air in its center to rise quickly, air from outside the rectangle then blows in to fill the space. This constant inwards wind creates head-fires all around the rectangle. As I may have mentioned, head fires (fires in which the flames are bent over unburned fuels) burn faster (though less completely) than backing fires. Since the rectangle strategy creates a ring of head-fires, it creates the desired black perimeter faster than the alternative.

The slowly advancing flame front was carefully guided around the botanical signposts within the burn site.

The slowly advancing flame front was carefully guided around the botanical signposts within the burn site.

The alternative to the rectangle strategy is simply lighting a long line of fire using the drip torch. On the one hand you use less than half the fuel, but on the other it doesn’t burn nearly as quickly (nor, in my incredibly limited experience, so well).

This is what our flank of the burn looked like after the fires had been put completely out. This burn, because we relied on a backing fire rather than a head fire, removed more of the fuel (the dead wood, leaves, and flammable loam) than the first fire of the day did.

This is what our flank of the burn looked like after the fires had been put completely out. This burn, because we relied on a backing fire rather than a head fire, removed more of the fuel (the dead wood, leaves, and flammable loam) than the first fire of the day did.

Hopefully, now that Winter is gone (at least as far as the calendar is concerned) we’ll be able to do more of this, it beats the snot out of shoveling.

Burning Piles (Or: What I’ve been up to for the past month)

After spending the coldest part of the winter staying warm by cutting down the pine trees across the street from our house, we finally got to start enjoying the fruits of all that labor. For the past few weeks we’ve spent about half of our days burning all the piles we’d created since we started chainsaw training several months back.

As is normal for our days with the Cape Cod National Seashore, we start burn days with a briefing in which we go over the weather, a safety talk, and the days task. When the weather permits (and with all the snow on the ground we’ve been able to burn with relative impunity lately) we then proceed to collect the materials we need – Drip Torches, Rakes, Hoses, Leaf Blowers, Chainsaws, Road Signs, Fuel, ect and head to the project site.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, we get to begin burning all the piles we created.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, we get to begin burning all the piles we created.

The actual ignitions are facilitated initially with the liberal use of a drip torch and a leaf blower. However, once a pile has been reduced to embers we can stow the torches and substitute a bucketful of glowing coals to ignite new piles. The resulting bonfire is further stoked by constant application of air through the leaf-blowers, which keeps the pile burning at full blast until all the fuel is expended.

hot

Ignition. Doesn’t this look like fun?

Unsurprisingly, the bonfires are extremely hot. Really, there’s a reason we wear fire-resistant clothing. Our facial hair was the first thing to take the heat poorly. Unfortunately, extravagant beards and open flame don’t mix. We’ve gotten much better at coming away from the workday not covered in soot, but we still have a long way to go before we’re capable of working this close to a roaring fire and not getting a bit crispy.

hot

The leaf blowers dramatically increase the heat produced by the bonfires, allowing us to get a more complete burn in a shorter time. The downside is that they need to be fairly close to be useful, and the fires get really, really hot.

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.

This week in pictures

Living in a real house (as opposed to living in a screened porch on a pavilion on a small island) means I actually have internet access every day of the week and I’ve been meaning to take advantage of this by posting more photographs. Unfortunately, the nature of the work I’ve been doing for the past few months has really discouraged me from taking my camera out with me. So — despite being ‘able’ to post more pictures — I haven’t actually taken many pictures worth posting.

I think I can manage posting a couple decent shots per week though. Realistically, most of what I’m doing doesn’t make for astounding photography, but I think I get enough exploring done to make for some interesting posts.

This week we split our time between four different projects. We worked in Nickerson State Park, repairing washed out fire roads, on Wing Island in Brewster, in a ex-cranberry bog being maintained by a local conservation organization, and at the town of Brewster’s shellfish grant.

The mission on Wing Island hasn’t changed, we’re still mowing down acres of brush to prep the area for a prescribed burn next spring/summer. At last check the total area we’ve treated in the last two months (working maybe one day a week on average) is approaching six acres. There’s still a ton to mow, but we’re making progress.

Wing Island is only an island at high tide. Luckily, we're prepared to make the trip out to the project area even when the moon isn't cooperating.

Wing Island is only an island at high tide. Luckily, we’re prepared to make the trip out to the project area even when the moon isn’t cooperating.

At this point, we're all fairly eager to be finished on Wing. It seems like we've been working there forever and we're looking forward to the promised payoff.

At this point, we’re all fairly eager to be finished on Wing. It seems like we’ve been working there forever and we’re looking forward to the promised payoff.

Although I’ve been living on Cape Cod for the past three months (or something like that) this week was the first time I’ve visited Nickerson State Park. The park itself is enormous, and is cris-crossed with fire roads to allow local fire departments to move engines and other resources easily to the site of any fire-event. We worked to help keep those fire-roads in decent shape by repairing a pair of washed out sections and replacing a damaged water bar.

I'm looking forward to coming back here once its warm out again. This weather and I don't really get along.

I’m looking forward to coming back here once its warm out again. This weather and I don’t really get along.

Finally, we spent the early part of this week helping to remove pines from a recently retired cranberry bog near Brewster. While the organization that is maintaining the bog hasn’t decided on what community they plan on promoting there yet, they know that Pitch Pine isn’t a species they’re concerned with fostering.

Unfortunately, some of the larger pines were too big to remove using brush cutters.

Unfortunately, some of the larger pines were too big to remove using brush cutters.

Serving with the Cape Cod National Seashore (Caco)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently serving with Americorps Cape Cod and with the Cape Cod National Seashore.  Specifically, I’m serving (working, whatever) as a member of the Americorps Fire Crew that was started just this year. The Americorps Cape Cod program has been in existence for the past 14 years  and during that time they’ve made connections with just about every conservation organization on the Cape. The Cape Cod National Seashore is one such organization.

In previous years only one or two Americorps members would serve with the Seashore. That approach worked well, but the powers that be decided that it would be even better to have a dedicated group of individuals working ‘only’ as a fire crew throughout the entire service year. All 11 months / 1700 hours of it.

(I’m still pleased as all get out that I have a contract that lasts 11 whole months!)

Casa Fire Crew

Wells House at Marconi Beach, Cape Cod. Home of the newly formed Americorps Fire Crew. Pretty sweet digs.

It apparently took awhile to get the necessary grants together, but as of September of this year all the ducks were finally lined up and we were taken on in a flurry of applications and interviews.

Since this is the Fire Crew’s first year in existence, quite a bit of our purpose is still up in the air. Clearly we’re meant to help the Cape Cod National Seashore with their ongoing prescribed burning of their own holdings, but there’s some question as to how far afield we can travel with them if they get called to an incident elsewhere in the country.

Obviously, Cape Cod is not known for its large scale Wildfires, however most of the Cape’s forests are dominated by Pitch Pines, a very fire tolerant species of tree that burns readily (read: at the drop of a hat). The Parks Service Fire crew splits their time alternating between travelling around the country working on wildland fires elsewhere and enacting prescribed burns on Cape Cod itself.

While on the Cape our tasks more often involve fuel reduction (physically cutting down and removing dead trees and brush) with occasional prescribed burns. Both of which are aimed at promoting a desired ecology by recycling nutrients, removing non-desired plant species, and creating habitat for animal species.

For instance. Below is a picture of Wing Island in Brewster Massachusetts. Wing Island is typically mowed once a year in order to promote early succession species — grasses, shrubs, and the like. Normally, that mowing treatment is carried out during the winter, when the cold weather freezes enough of the marsh surrounding the island to allow a tractor access. Unfortunately, it never got quite cold enough last year to provide the tractor with safe passage. Because of that, there was a massive spike in the number of woody plant species growing in the area. In the picture below we’re pre-treating the area in preparation for a burn there this coming Spring/Summer.

In the foreground the dried out layer of brush we cut previously is visible. This project has been ongoing for the past few months. Unfortunately, there's still a ton to do before its adequately prepped for burning

In the foreground the dried out layer of brush we cut previously is visible. This project has been ongoing for the past few months. Unfortunately, there’s still a ton to do before its adequately prepped for burning

By cutting down the grasses and shrubs that have grown up over the fields on the island we’re creating a continuous horizontal fuel layer, which will burn more readily than had we simply left things in state.

This sort of work constitutes a large portion of what we’ve been doing for the past few months. This fall was uncommonly wet, which unfortunately prevented us from lighting as many prescribed burns as our managers would have liked. However, although these projects aren’t as exciting as the burns tend to be, the naturalist part of me still finds them (if not engaging) satisfying.

Calf Island: Overview

A month ago (early June, 2012) I arrived at the Steward B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook Connecticut to begin training for my current job on Calf Island. I’ll get into the training regiment at a later date, I suppose it might be interesting to someone considering entering the field. In the meantime. My last few entries have been annoyingly brief, largely because I don’t have a reliable internet connection on the island. Now that I’ve made the time to find a library with free wifi (and blessed AC), I think its time to explain exactly what I’m doing with myself out here.

After a few weeks of training and orientation, I finally shipped out to Calf Island. Calf island is a 30 odd acre dog-bone shaped island near Greenwich, CT that is half public access and half restricted. On the public side there is a “slightly” out of order float-dock (not connected to land during high tide), a large pavilion, and some forest. The restricted side contains a large chunk of dense, untracked, forest and a tidal marsh full of mussels, shorebirds, and mud. In between the two halves is a narrow strip of sandy beach that is currently also open to the public (it had been closed earlier in the season in anticipation of nesting that never happened). At low-tide a narrow spit of sandbar connects Calf island to neighboring shell island.

At low tide the spit is wide enough to play soccer on and is covered with birds eating the shellfish that live there, at high tide it’s covered in 4 feet (at least) of water.

The flora on the restricted side of the island is considerably denser than on the public side.

 

Another shot of the restricted side of the island. Most of what is visible is intertidal.

I currently reside in the pavilion on the public side of the island with one other island keeper. There are two small rooms enclosed on one side of the pavilion, one of which contains a propane powered refrigerator and our food, the other of which holds a pair of cots and our clothes. Besides those two rooms the pavilion shelters a large fireplace, three picnic tables, and a propane stove we cook on (when we have propane at least). The bathroom facilities are… rustic.

Obviously, this is all right up my alley, given the choice I’d rather spend my days entirely outside anyhow. So the fact that I’m really given no choice at all doesn’t bother me one bit.

The outdoor portion of the pavilion is actually quite spacious, the “bedroom” portion is visible in this picture, it is the tiny screened off section that was clearly added on as an afterthought. Its small, but I only really go inside to sleep or change clothes anyhow.

Our mission on the island is threefold. First (in my mind at least) we’re here to survey the island, identify potentially problematic populations of invasive plants, and remove them from the island before they can go to seed. At the same time, locating populations of rare or endangered plant species on the island would also be valuable. Second, we’ll be attempting to get an accurate idea of what wildlife the island supports, both avian and mammalian. Third, we’re to act as environmental interpreters to the few visitors the island attracts. We’d like people to treat the place with some respect and – if possible – leave with a greater appreciation of it’s value than they arrived with.

Our tenuous connection to the mainland.

I’m excited to get the wildlife experience, my bird identification skills have waxed and waned over the past few years, hopefully this will be an opportunity to really nail my shorebirds at least. As for the botany side of things, I’m pretty much playing to my strengths there, invasive identification and control is what I have the most experience in, since I expect I’ll continue to work in that field for quite a while, I might as well be good at it.

Moving to Connecticut: Finally on my merry way again

I’ve been in Pennsylvania for a little less than six months now. Too long, really. But although I don’t much care for sticking in one place this long, the time has been valuable. I’ve at least managed to stay employed the entire time (if underemployed) and taking classes through PSU’s World Campus has been wonderful. If anyone is on the fence about furthering their education but isn’t able to commute to a local campus I heartily recommend the correspondence (thankfully not mail based) programs Penn State offers.

But, although I’m only half done with my GIS certification (I’ll be finished in December), I’m heading out again. This time to the Stewart B. Mckinney Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut where I picked up a job as a Summer Island Keeper. (Which has to be my favorite title ever, I almost want to print business cards solely to show it off). Starting in a few days I’ll be a resident on Calf Island in the Long Island Sound. I’m thrilled.

Take a look at the link above, this place seems awesome. Moreover the job caters to my strengths AND allows me to branch out a bit. A large chunk of my time will be spent on Invasive Species management, which is pretty much my forte at this point, but I’ll also be able to help with some ongoing wildlife work at the preserve. Wildlife Biology is notoriously difficult to break into, and although I actually prefer botany, I’m eager to learn new things.

Pictures and new stories will follow.

Water in the desert

Water is a major issue in Southern California, billboards all up and down the 99 and 5 make sure everyone stays well informed about what their politicians are doing to protect (or ruin) the water rights of the area’s many farmers. Without water piped down from the mountains the area would be unfarmable, although that was not always the case. The Atwell Island restoration project seeks to recapture a bit of what the area around Alpaugh had been before the arrival of american agriculture. That there is water at all here speaks volumes of their success, that there is so little of it speaks to how far they have to go before they’re finished.

I’ve shown a few pictures of the Atwell Island restoration project, but I have many more, and might as well share them now before I get too far off topic with other places and jobs.

The water level raised and lowered depending on the status of the many pumps around the project. Sometime leaving islands where before their had been paths before.

Sunrise over the wetland

On occasion we had to paddle out into one of the larger ponds to access infested islands away from the edge. We had a rowboat, but didn’t have a set of oars, and made due instead with a kayak paddle and a long length of fence-post.

Sunrise over one of the ponds.

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