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Fire with a purpose

Prescribed fire in the northeast

Preventing Fire With fire

When we think of wildland firefighting, we think of massive flames shooting into the sky engulfing everything in their path. We think of firefighters in yellow coats courageously battling flames and smoke to save homes, business and vast tracts of land from a destruction that cost billions of dollars and sometimes people’s lives. For 30 years, my father was a wildland firefighter. I can still remember him setting out for weeks at a time during fire season to fight some forest fire being reported on TV in some far off western state. I remember the concern I felt for him and his safety. But the science of wildland firefighting is much more than these dramatic images. The primary goal of wildland firefighting is prevention and management, a quieter and calmer story that news cameras rarely report. One form of prevention and management is the use of prescribed fire. During the wetter seasons of spring or fall, under very specific conditions and in very specific locations, trained firefighters set fires to burn away fuel build-up that can lead to an uncontrollable fire. On the east coast of the United States major forest fires are rare but under the right conditions, an uncontrolled fire could devastate this densely populated area in the same ways we have seen in California and other western communities. And as our world’s climate changes, preventive tools like prescribed fire are among a Fire Management Officer’s best resource.

This project is designed to shine a light on the less dramatic side of the world of wildland firefighting and specifically to try to understand the use and importance of prescribed fire. We will ask, Why is prescribed fire important? Who are the firefighters that use fire as a tool? How and where are these fires set? These and other questions have formed the thesis behind my project. Wildland firefighting has always been a part of my life because of my father’s job with the National Park Service but I only began to understand its importance when I took on this project. What my father dedicated his career to doing was important as a way to preserve not only our natural landscape but our urban one as well. I wish to highlight the work he and so many others have done and continue to do each day to protect our natural and manmade resources.

Being a Wildland Firefighter

The wildland firefighters in this project are from all walks of life. Some make this their fulltime job, for others it is a side gig, a way to make additional money or as a change from their regular job. There are those who have been firefighters for years and others who are experiencing their first season on the line. But despite their differences these men and women come together when called upon to form an effective team. They are brought together by their mutual love and enjoyment of nature and their training: two classroom courses, a field day and a rigorous 3-mile pack test that must be completed in less than 45 minutes while carrying a 45lb pack. There is a familiar camaraderie and respect that these firefighters fall into at each fire.

Click on the portraits below and listen to the firefighters tell a little something about themselves:


Every fire is different

Types of fuel, winds and temperature, humidity and landscape, natural and man-made boundaries all define how a burn day will proceed. On a given day grasses can burn with a thunderous rush while the next day, after a heavy dew they smolder and smoke out the firefighters. The purpose of a fire can vary as well from reducing fuel loads to preserving a historic vista. The burn boss for the organization in charge will spend extensive time preparing a burn plan that dictates the parameters that must exist before a flame is lit. They will ensure that the burn area is made ready, mowing and cutting boundaries around a zone if needed. On the day of the burn firefighters will use hand tools, hand pumps and engines to contain a fire’s path within the desired area. Every burn boss and firefighter must be ready for each fire’s unique personality.

Click on the maps below to learn more about each burn from the project:

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