Prescribed burns heat up ecology class
By Janet Beagle
Joe Ross could see the fire raging downwind, sucking in air like the turbo on a car, throwing grasses and leaves in the air, and making the tops of the trees whip as though in a thunderstorm.
Photo by Janet Beagle
Nathaniel Lange, a junior forestry major from Archbold, Ohio, "lays fire" as part of a prescribed burn at Prophetstown State Park.
"There is a power there that is awe-inspiring to watch," Ross said. The senior forestry and wildlife science major from Walkerton, Ind., participated in a prescribed burn as part of Purdue's fire ecology class. These controlled fires burn invasive plants and allow native plants to flourish. "Fire used to be viewed as negative. Now it's needed to sustain ecosystems," said Valerie Clarkston, a junior wildlife major from Richmond, Ind.
An example can be seen at Prophetstown State Park, 10 miles north of Purdue's West Lafayette campus, where fields are burned to maintain the prairie grasses and native wildflowers. Jessica Hoffmeister, a fisheries and aquatic sciences major from Waterloo, Ind., conducted her first burn there. She said the experience was like standing right next to a raging bonfire.
"It's so loud you can hardly hear anybody," she said. And it burned fast. "I don’t know how many acres we burned, but the fire was out in a minute. We walked along with our canisters of diesel fuel and gasoline and as soon as we tipped our canisters (to light the grass) it was a raging fire," Hoffmeister said.
Ross described his experience in the woods of Tefft Savanna Nature Preserve in northern Indiana differently. "I expected a raging inferno like Hollywood where you have to run like hell and jump in a lake,” Ross said. "But what was really impressive was how hot small fires can be. I'm standing there and I'm just starting to feel my beard start to curl."
Fortunately, a lot of experienced people from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) were there for guidance. And Steve Creech, lecturer in the department of forestry and natural resources and the instructor of the fire ecology class, brought years of experience to his team of students. Creech was the IDNR fire manager for 25 years and his type 1 prescribed fire burn boss certification is the highest national certification possible. He uses this certification to conduct about 15 prescribed burns a year. As an operations section chief, Creech is frequently called to help manage wildfires throughout the country.
"Some people walk on water. Creech walks through fire," Ross said. Ross recalled how Creech immediately garnered the respect of everyone on the IDNR burn crew. Creech outworked three other crew members, and he kept popping in and out of the brush to check on members of their team, Ross said. Once, toward the end of the burn, they ran out of drinking water, and Creech suddenly reappeared with water bottles for everyone. "He was everywhere and no where at once. I was climbing trees just to try to keep track of him," Ross said.
Creech emphasized the importance of giving his students field experience. Students can learn how radiant heat from a fire travels at the speed of light, and how it can be hot enough to ignite grass even without a flame, but none of those things really mean anything until a student experiences them first-hand. "It takes that first burn to understand what radiant heat is. You can see it in their faces," Creech said.
Creech draws students to his class because of the field experience he offers them. Dustin McBride, currently a graduate student at Tarleton State University in Stephensville, Texas, attended five prescribed burns when he took the class two years ago. "It's not every class you can burn a couple hundred acres," he said.