Say “prescribed fire” and most picture drip torches, smoke and yellow Nomex. We tend to think in phrases such as acres burned, rare species helped, habitats restored. None of which is off-base.

The University of Montana-sponsored group helps with the prescribed fire near Butler (photo by Hal Massie)
The University of Montana-sponsored group helps with the prescribed fire near Butler (photo by Hal Massie/GaDNR)

Rarely, however, do we think about prescribed fire in terms of relationships. Yet the connections that link people focused on fire are critical to successful burns.

Case in point: Workers (yes, in Nomex) recently burned 50 acres of sandhills and longleaf pine in Taylor County, a tract showing the fruit from regular sweeps of fire the habitat needs, particularly in spring.

Less obvious were the connections that fit like puzzle pieces to make the burn happen.

Piece 1: Bryn and Clarissa Pipes own the 100-acre farm near Butler. They met DNR’s Shan Cammack at a Flint River landowners meeting in the 1990s. The Pipes’ property borders a Flint tributary and features species unusual to the area, such as Atlantic white cedar and fox squirrels. Working with Cammack, now fire management officer for the Nongame Conservation Section, and Steve Raper, a private lands specialist with Nongame Conservation, the Pipes put their farm in a DNR conservation easement. Since 2001, the tract has been burned four times and longleaf planted.

Piece 2: This year, Cammack hoped to burn the site in spring, timing that is more effective for fire-adapted species. There was just one hitch: The Nongame Conservation Section’s two seasonal burn crews had disbanded for the year.

Prescribed fires at the sandhills tract have produced a dynamic shift in the natural communities and an increase in floristic diversity, writes DNR’s Shan Cammack.
Prescribed fires at the sandhills tract have produced a dynamic shift in the natural communities and an increase in floristic diversity, writes DNR’s Shan Cammack.

Needing more people and equipment, she called on the Interagency Burn Team, including The Nature Conservancy and its fire crew at Moody Forest in southeast Georgia.

Piece 3: Closer to Butler, Nature Conservancy fire manager Erick Brown and a seasonal crew based in west Georgia were working with a University of Montana group led by associated professor Carl Seielstad. For the last eight years, students from the school have burned in Georgia as part of a prescribed fire practicum. But the university and federal scientists were here this month as a test run for a possible a practicum for fire practitioners and researchers. Could the Montanans join the Taylor County burn? Sure.

Piece 4: OK, maybe this is less of a piece and more where the pieces come together. The Montana group beefed up the Interagency Burn Team crew, giving the researchers more of the fireline time they wanted. Cammack and Brown completed another lightning season burn, something both are pushing. Brown’s west Georgia crew could check other areas recently burned instead of working a new fire. And a mid-state conservation easement received the fire it needed and its owners wanted.

“Each time we burn,” Cammack said, the landowners “enjoy watching a dynamic shift in the natural communities and an increase in the floristic diversity.”

After this burn, the group also enjoyed some Southern hospitality as Clarissa capped a day working the fireline by providing a meal replete with sweet tea, homemade bread and peanut butter bars.

The shared meal spoke to the underlying connections, some of which run deep.

The Pipes train annually as prescribed fire volunteers. This year, Bryn even joined a seasonal DNR fire crew. He said of his family’s work with Cammack, “It’s really been a good partnership and friendship.”

Following the burn, a check of the site found the first active gopher tortoise burrow seen on the property in 15 years. (Shan Cammack/GaDNR)
Following the burn, a check of the site found the first active gopher tortoise burrow seen on the property in 15 years. (Shan Cammack/GaDNR)

Seielstad has burned with Cammack and Brown for years. He’ll be back in January with more Montana Grizzlies students. Brown considers it “super important to get those students going into (western) fire management … some experience in prescribed fire.” Adding a practicum for professionals is a possibility.

The Interagency Burn Team is a growing, resilient group that also includes Georgia Forestry Commission, The Longleaf Alliance, The Orianne Society, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cammack calls the prescribed fire in Taylor County a win-win. But maybe it’s more a win-win-win.

Wildlife wins. (Bryn recently found the first active gopher tortoise burrow seen on his property in 15 years.) Georgians win as the wildlife and wild places they treasure are renewed. And prescribed fire, a key source of that renewal, wins because the network it relies on is again tested and proven.

Or, as Seielstad said, “The thing that makes this restoration tick is people.”

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