Playing With Fire

That roaring inferno you see was started intentionally, and if it can be kept under control, it'll do more good than harm

"We are trying to educate the politicians and the public that we need to do more burning," says Douglas D. Erskine, chief of the National Park Service's fire management program center in Boise, Idaho. "But when you spend 75 years putting fires out -- and promoting Smokey Bear -- the public has the impression that all fires are bad. That's one of the main things we are trying to overcome with education." Which is not to say that Smokey, the ursine nag, and his "Only you... fire prevention message is about to be replaced by Beavis and Butt-head yelling "Fire! Fire!" But as the Interagency Fire Center Report concludes, "Wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem."

Among those places where fire has already been reintroduced is Everglades National Park. In the years following the park's founding in 1947, managers here followed the federal guidelines for all national preserves: Fire is a destroyer, thus fires must be actively suppressed. By the early Fifties, firefighters' skill in stomping out blazes, along with a series of dry years, led to an explosive buildup of fuels and some lightning-sparked fires that just could not be extinguished. That led to a reassessment of fire policy, and as a result the first federally sponsored prescribed fire was touched off in Everglades National Park in 1958.

Still, as people moved in right up to the park's eastern edge, prescribed fires were employed sparingly, and the result has been a huge buildup of hardwood underbrush and exotic plants in the 19,000 acres of pineland inside park boundaries. This summer prescribed burn specialist John Segar, who was posted here from Nebraska in October, hopes to put a match to thousands of acres just west of Homestead.

On a recent Friday, Segar is sitting in front of about ten rangers and firefighters gathered in a cinderblock building down the road from the Royal Palm Visitors Center. He is going over procedures for burning a 120-acre section of pineland near the park's main entrance. Segar, age 35, briefs his troops with a practiced going-to-war nonchalance in an address laced with hotshot argot and fire-starter lingo. He indicates a map of the battlefield. "We're going to go in and finish up blocks U and Y, where we got rained out on Monday," he says. "You can see the hardwoods want to take that area over, so we want to do a good number in there. Since the hurricane, we don't know what [debris] has been put into the brush, so stay out of the smoke.

"Kim," Segar says to fire technician Kim Thatcher, "you're going to be the ignition specialist. We'll do a test burn near the road, so the trick for us is to get that smoke to disperse. We want to burn that area hot, Kim, so get as much fire as you can in there.

"We'll string some fire with the drip torches, and toss some fire into other spots, into the sawgrass by the canal, with the fusees [combustible fuses] and the bang pistol. Watch the ignition pattern in here.

"Have plenty of hose, and plenty of water, because we're going to be near the buildings at the visitors center. If something happens... Well, I think everything is going to go pretty much straight up. But make sure that nothing spots back to the east, to the maintenance area. We don't want to burn down the maintenance area." Segar pauses, then adds, "And we won't.

"We're going to go up past the recycling bins, and tie in to that old burn scar. When you light it up, it's going to rip. So light it up and get out of there. I know there are some pallets in the area, and maybe some trailers.

"There is some rain around, so watch for wind shifts. Keep communications on channel 8.

"For safety, the usual. Poisonwood [smoke danger]. Don't walk in there; just toss fusees in. If there is lightning, get in the trucks and wait it out. We'll be monitoring the heat and RH [relative humidity]. Be safe.

"Any questions?" asks Segar.
Silence. "Time to burn," says someone in response, and the group pushes back from the tables and heads out the back door. By the trucks -- pickups fitted with water tanks and gas-powered pumps -- the crew suits up, pulling on char-marked yellow jump suits and lacing up their high-top leather boots. They already smell like smoke.

Among today's crew are four firefighters on temporary assignment from Yellowstone National Park, including 31-year-old Dan Warthin, a burly, powerful-looking man whose curly blond hair hangs down in ringlets from under his hardhat. He is wearing a web belt strung with three canteens and a radio. Strapped across his chest is a harness that holds a small, multipocketed pack which contains a penknife, pens and writing paper, a tube of Blistex, a granola bar, a compass, a whistle, a tiny flashlight, spare batteries for the radio, a Bic lighter, wooden matches, a briefing card of emergency-procedure reminders, a blank fire-behavior report sheet, a pair of ear plugs, eye goggles, and a small, crushed roll of toilet paper. In a separate pack at his waist is a portable fire shelter, which is a sheet of lightweight, aluminum-looking material that unfolds to make a cover in case he should be surrounded by fire. "If you have to pull out the fire shelter," says Warthin, "you screwed up."

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