Most people wanting to spend their vacation someplace relaxing. Wisconsin Land Manager Eric Mark spent his in Northern California volunteering on a crew helping to fight the massive wildfire that’s still raging.
The 20-person crew was made up of volunteers from the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Menominee Tribal Enterprises and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Eric was a sawyer, which means he cleared the line by cutting down trees and debris with an 18-pound chainsaw that he hauled up and down the mountain on top of the rest of his gear.
“In the end, I put in 259 hours of work, slept on the ground under the stars and smoke, with no shower for 10 days and worked in the dust and ash, day in and day out. But I would do it all over again to help the people, towns and villages effected by these fires each and every year,” said Eric.
Eric shared his experience — and answers to a couple of questions — below.
Conservancy Talk: Most people run away from fires. What’s going through your mind when you are headed towards one?
Eric: Oh, lots of things. Adrenaline, for one. But mostly I’m just thinking about helping the local community the surrounding natural area. When you go to these areas, the community is so thankful for what we do.I’ve been doing this for 12 years, so it’s not really something I think about anymore. But the other side of this is the teaching part. I’m on a squad teaching the next generation of fire fighters who do come to the site with worries, mostly from lack of experience. And like my mentors showed me, it’s my job to show them that we can stay safe by arming ourselves with knowledge. Once you have some experience under your belt, the training kicks in and eases those concerns.
Conservancy Talk: With such devastating wildfires raging, it can be difficult to some to understand why the Conservancy uses fire as a conservation method, and what that means. How would you describe our prescribed fire work to someone you just met?
Eric: If we look back throughout history we can see that we never had what the media calls “megafires” – these fires we’re currently seeing that are running out of control. Fire used to happen naturally, annually, to reduce overgrowth in forests, and keep grasslands and other ecosystems healthy. In the last century, however, the down and dead leaves, branches and other debris on the ground floor has been accumulating. The climate is changing, making it hotter and drier throughout the West, supporting the spread of insects and plant diseases that have killed off large pine stands that leave debris on the ground.All this adds up, and when you do have a human cause or natural start like lightning, all this accumulating fuel makes these fires burn out of control. That’s why the Conservancy sets what we call prescribed fires – to reduce the fuel load in these natural areas. We’re basically trying to mimic a natural process that hasn’t been happening naturally the way it should.
But a picture can tell 1000 words, as they say.
This is what’s known as a moon scape. It’s from the Power Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. This picture shows the effects of fire when fuels dry out and you put slope and wind behind the fire. The crew was responsible for mopping up the edges of the fire and making sure that it was cooled down. As this fire was coming to a close, a new start had taken place in the Tahoe National Forest, so we were released from the Power Fire and reassigned to the American Fire. When we arrived, the fire was around 500 acres in size but due to the dry conditions, extremely steep topography and the lack of resources to battle the fire, it has grown to more than 25,000 acres in size.
This was our crew. I would like to say that those are clouds in the background, but that is all smoke from the fire making a big run that day.
This is the American Fire in the Tahoe National Forest making another large run in the next valley over as we cut and dig line in hopes of stopping that sustained crown run.
This is the crew digging line after we chainsawed all the brush and trees out of the way.
Conservancy Talk: Do you have any relaxing vacations planned in the near future?
Eric: I’m actually going to try to head back west. As these wildfires continue, there is a need nationally for trained hands on the ground. Folks were calling daily for more resources and they’re just not available. Federal agencies will email anyone who is fire qualified, sometimes even office folks, and people will drop what they’re doing to help.
If you can’t physically help battle these fires, you can help these fireworkers continue their work by adopting a fireworker today.