It was sunny and 75 degrees in the second week of March and we needed to get away. It has already been a long semester and we could not have taken one more day sitting in a classroom so we packed our trucks and headed towards the coast for spring break. However, we ended up about 140 miles short of Panama City and arrived at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Center, a 29,000 acre longleaf-wiregrass paradise in beautiful South Georgia and it didn’t happen by accident. While most other students spent their spring break on a beach, we came to study fire under the instruction of the best burners in the world.
Throughout the week, we obtained invaluable knowledge from fire ecology experts from the Jones Center, the Georgia Forestry Commission, the US Forest Service, the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, and from professors at Warnell. We spent the first two days of the course learning about the longleaf ecosystem, fire behavior, smoke management, the effects of weather on fire, and how to plan out prescribed burns. This laid the groundwork for fueling up our drip torches and striking a match. On Wednesday morning we checked the weather, our fuel moisture, plotted our smoke and made the most important decision you can make when prescribed burning… it was the day we were going to strike a match. We loaded up into the vans, put on our Nomex suits, and grabbed the torches.
After arriving at the stand and checking the breaks one more time, we dropped a match to burn a test fire in a small patch to observe how the weather, fuel, and fire were going to interact. The wind was perfect as it was coming out of the north, which set up for a perfect backing fire. We commenced lighting flanks around the perimeter and stayed in communication with our teammates on the other side of the fire. After working the flanks up the breaks for about 100 yards, we made the trek across the stand to light strips heads and really got it rolling. We kept this ignition pattern going until there was enough fire to burn out the remainder of the stand. After the flames were out, we went back around the line to ensure no burning snags had fallen over the break and extinguished logs that were still burning on the edge of the stand. We had completed our first prescribed fire and put another notch on our belts.
Sure, I could have spent the week hanging out with friends on the lake or at the beach but I would have missed out on the best class that I have ever taken at Warnell. We obtained the kind of knowledge you can only learn in the field and from the best burners to step foot in our southern forests. If I can give one piece of advice as a senior, it would be to expand your horizons and put that next notch in your belt with actual field experience because you can’t learn everything from a textbook. In the words of the famous D.W. Brooks, it’s too late for “talk-teaching. Do-teaching will be a lot faster”. Learn from by doing any chance you get and never take a field experience for granted.