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

Dark thunderheads are building in the west when the crew circles the trucks and reassembles at the starting point yards from the park's main entrance. As Segar goes over the game plan once more, an Eastern meadowlark, roused by the commotion, emerges from the tall grass, perches at the top of a small live oak, and rasps out an alarm call, as if to say, "Whatever you people are about to do, don't." But the storms seem to be stationary, and Segar decides to ignore the bird. "Let's go for it," he says.

As a couple of the crew wrap a power pole in a fire shelter blanket, and hose down the base with water, Warthin, Vanessa Miller, and David Kelly button up their jump suits, pull on gloves, and fire up the drip torches. Within seconds pumpkin-color flames are licking at the scrub, and the smoke billowing across the roadway is so dense that park police are stopping the German tourists to quell their fears of Miami mayhem and to tell them to flick on the headlights of their rental cars. In a light breeze gusting to ten miles per hour, the fire spreads through the pineland, which is so cluttered with brush and little hardwoods that it looks more like rain forest than rockland.

Thatcher and a colleague drive down a levee alongside the canal, park, and begin lobbing lighted fusees into the grass on the other side. Some of them ignite the grass and bushes along the bank, and slowly the fire spreads, while a few others end up in the water, where they magically bubble under the surface like lingering taunts.

As the crew fans out, Segar hustles to keep track of it all, checking on wind shifts, directing the placement of the fire trucks, reassuring the administrative staff that the fire is under control. "Burning down an administration building," Segar deadpans, "is what you'd call a career-limiting incident."

Segar's job is to see that the fire is controlled and contained. "It's planned out, but still this job is more challenging than fun. Often stressful," he says, and to prove it he gets a radio call that smoke is rising from the middle of a sawgrass prairie several hundred yards on the wrong side of the road. He sends a couple of crew members to check it out, and they slog out into the shin-deep water.

"The hard part for us is that Mother Nature is still not real predictable, especially in South Florida," Segar explains. "On days when it's supposed to be bone dry, it rains. That's just the way it is. You can't forecast the weather with a great deal of certainty. So despite all the best planning, we still have to be ready to react. I have a checklist, and I make sure all my bases are covered. I look at the big picture, and anticipate being surprised. I have extra people there. So if the fire goes according to plan, we're all sitting around and looking like we're wasting the taxpayers' money."

Neither Segar nor Klein, who are acquainted but have not worked fires together, admits to any pyromaniacal tendencies. As kids growing up in Virginia and Michigan, respectively, neither set their bedrooms ablaze. But they agree that there is something almost illicitly thrilling about having a license to burn, about taking a flamethrower to a tinderbox forest and then stepping back in wonder as one of nature's elemental forces mushrooms into a monster and then runs off to lay waste to everything in its path. Unleashing acres of combustion is awesome.

Klein and Segar also agree that enjoying a career with fire is not gender-related. Indeed Segar's six-person prescribed burn crew is 50-50 male and female. "In the past, the job of firefighter was seen as a macho profession, but now there are more women in it," says Segar. "And I don't see it as a male thing. There are times when it's a fun thing to do, and there are other times when it's 95 degrees, high humidity, mosquitoes, dehydration, poisonwood.

"I think the common attribute we have is a love of the outdoors, and we like to be challenged, physically and mentally."

Klein cops to "that adrenaline thing when you light it up. When you're with that drip torch, dropping lines of fire behind you," she says, "it can be a little scary when it goes off."

Yet among nonprofessionals, adds Klein, the testosterone test associated with fire still comes up positive. "I do a lot of camping," she explains, "and it's amazing that men think they're the only ones who can start a fire. I bet in caveman times, women were in charge of the fire. But you wouldn't know that when it's time to cook the hot dogs."

Several days after the burn at the Nixon Smiley Preserve, Klein and the Department of Forestry rangers convene in a picnic shelter at Tropical Park to go over maps, job assignments, and safety procedures. The target this Thursday is a four-acre stand of slash pine between the tennis courts and the 826 expressway. This patch of trees is known as a popular gay trysting spot, and one of the rangers jokes that the last fire to go through here was touched off by friction.

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