Something recoils: Something doesn’t like the idea of setting fire to the forest. The mind resists even as the hands busy themselves—filling a drip torch with diesel and gasoline, lighting the wick, tipping the canister’s spout towards the ground to let the burning fuel flow out. It resists as the hush of the trees is undone by the crackle of trailing flame growing behind you.
I was a member of a prescribed fire “burn crew,” trained and certified. If a concerned onlooker asked why a couple dozen people in helmets were setting fire to the woods, I could reassure them: These fires help keep the forest healthy. See the longleaf pines, the tall ones? They support our whole ecosystem in the Southeast, and they depend on fires from lightning strikes to clear the ground. These woods will grow back greener and healthier. But it’s one thing to explain why something works, and another thing to be the one setting fire to the parched reeds.
My early images of the forest usually had Smokey the Bear somewhere in the foreground, warning against campfire sparks in his honeyed baritone. Thanks to pants-wearing bears and other PSA organs, I knew that fire was nature’s enemy. But the truth is that fire has a long history of being used proactively—not only for cooking, heating, or smithing, but also as an ecological tool. Native peoples across the continent have long used it to thin forests and rejuvenate pasture. European observers were horrified, but the trees and the herds grew strong on the renewed land. I understood all of this. But that didn’t make it any easier. By the end of the day, the green forest was still reduced to blackened bones.
Burn work is done largely by hand, using a few simple tools. The drip torch, described above, is a central element: A worker crisscrosses the area with it, laying strip fires which will clear out the underbrush. A sharp-tined council rake and a shovel scrape swathes of bare soil which restrict the fire’s progress. There’s a variety of safety gear, like flame-retardant coats, and a little tinfoil sleeping-bag which you are supposed to deploy if the fire is bearing down. But the most important tools on hand are the radio set and the weather data, and a healthy respect for the caprices of wind and weather and flame.
That respect is not hard to come by when you are on the ground. The heat stuns. The low crawl of flame shoots up unexpectedly when it meets a stand of heavy vegetation. Such a flare-up has a sound unlike any other, similar to a hard rain, or a high gale standing in place. Embers go pirouetting away on the updraft. Even after I became used to these sights and sounds, and the fire work became commonplace—as all things do eventually become commonplace—it was no less beautiful and no less terrible.
At that time, the fact that any pursuit could become commonplace in my life was a wonder in itself. I was in my mid-twenties, a condition I’ve only recently escaped. I had run away from my stint at a big out-of-state college, returned home to State U., found even that too limiting, and ran away from it also. I wanted to write, but I was not ready for it. That left me with only one certainty: I wanted to be outdoors. I did summer work at a state park which led to a job in the Florida Panhandle, a place as ecologically and societally “outdoors” as I could have imagined. I lived facing the Gulf in an area which earned its name, the Forgotten Coast, with every woebegone inch of sand. Ex-fishing villages where the fishermen had been shunted ashore by regulations, and wandered on land like castaways. Old oystering towns, worse yet. What living had ever been made in the area was in its waters, and so the land was unbroken forest for miles and miles. This was what we burned.
We’d assemble on those bright, bone-dry winter mornings for our briefing, swinging our arms in the cold. There is a distinctly militaristic whiff to prescribed fire: Lined up in our green gabardines we looked like your classic ragtag gang of recruits, from a bad ’Nam movie perhaps. A group of rednecks, ex-hippies, ex-Marines, and a few hardcore fire-lifers. My favorite was “Sparky,” a maniac for fire who chain-smoked his Lights through even the thickest brush-smoke. No one ever saw Sparky eat anything other than hot dogs, preferably cooked over a nicely smoldering shrub. Sparky’s buddy “Buzz” was a moody man with a ponderous mustache. But on burn days he transformed into a fierce and zealous foot soldier, scouting for flare-ups deep into the night. Fire, I decided, turned people strange. Or turned them more fully into themselves.
The work agreed with me. I understood its methods, because I knew what it was to do violence to my own conditions. Watching a saw palmetto arch and toss in the flames gave me a glimpse of a way through, God’s plan for the pinewoods and perhaps for me. That palmetto would grow back, sturdier than ever. Maybe I’d regenerate too. So I set fire to the webbed density of my own life. I allowed my preoccupation with “presence”—internet presence, social presence—to lapse. No more Facebook profile, no more weeknights at the smart bars. I stepped inside a Baptist church where I was greeted so warmly that you’d think I’d been born and grown old in those pews. Under the influence of the Forgotten Coast, I renounced my old patterns. I let myself be forgotten.
This impulse did not extend to true self-destruction—not quite. It was the American male’s trusty substitute for that: fumbling toward danger. There were plenty of opportunities. On my very first burn, I was “boxed in.” I was surrounded on four sides by flames, the result of a crewmate’s enthusiasm with the drip torch. My first instinct was to press forward in the same direction in which I’d been traveling. But the gallberry was exceedingly thick. Running became impossible, so I had to walk; soon walking became impossible, so I was reduced to a kind of breast-stroke. I started thinking about my little tinfoil sleeping bag. Thankfully, I decided to turn around, and when I reached the line of fire to the rear it was low. I stepped over it. I do not recall feeling any joy or relief on the other side: just that blank-eyed nodding numbness you feel when people hurry over to ask Are you all right ? There wasn’t much to say. It was still early in the day, and we had a whole forest yet to burn.
The day after a prescribed fire, the dense underbrush is turned to soft ash. What you do not see, at first, is that the hardwood oaks are dead too. Their bark is not made to withstand the blaze, and they are dead standing up. They survive only in the lower areas which are their natural habitat.
But other species are revitalized by the burn, and propagate in the space which the intruding oaks once occupied. Longleaf pines charred halfway up their trunks drop their cones into the raw mineral soil. Wiregrass clumps are gnawed to the quick by flames but quickly put up new growth. Gallberry and palmetto spread like, well, wildfire. They feed on the openness and sparseness that the fires create; they need an act of God to reach past their faster-growing competitors. And they get it. Within a week emerald shoots are surging through the blackened forest floor. Sometimes the ground is still smoldering when the bright green spikelets emerge.
Is it too pat to say that all of my false growth had been cleared away, too? Half a decade of self-inflicted fires—dropping out of school, working bruising jobs, troubling the worldview with God, the masochistic ambition of writing—had eliminated the scrub. It’s too simplistic to say that you can gain from your losses in the fire. But it’s different with the fires we set ourselves. When you come through that immolation, you are glad to see the green pricking up from beneath the char. It is a miracle every time.