“Some people feel a connection to their hometown or birthplace. For me, my place is fire. It’s a heartfelt connection to the land and the renewal and healing properties that fire brings to the landscape and the people who depend on it for food, water and even recreation. It’s ancient, primitive.” — Jeremy Bailey, the Conservancy’s associate director of fire training
Jeremy Bailey’s mom may have unknowingly charted the course of her son’s career at his 5th birthday party when she arranged a ride in a fire truck bucket for him and his friends. From that moment on, Jeremy was hooked. At 14, he joined the local volunteer fire department’s apprenticeship program in his hometown of Gypsum, Colorado, and at 18, he began responding to fires and emergencies.
While attending Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Jeremy and his roommates pulled double duty as students and firefighters.
“We didn’t have a car, so anytime our pagers went off, even at 3 in the morning, we’d take off running for the fire house, which was over a mile away. We could do it in 8 minutes. By the time we arrived, we’d be wide awake and ready to go.”
After college, Jeremy worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, holding a variety of leadership positions, including Hotshot squad leader. And then, after 14 years of fighting wildland fires, he made a critical career transition – from firefighter to fire lighter.
“While working wildfires in New Mexico, I started to see the benefits of controlled burns,” he says. “We’ve been investing millions and millions of dollars in suppressing fire, but fire has been a natural part of the environment and human culture for thousands and thousands of years. If we move the pendulum back to where people are using and managing fire to improve the health of their local forests and prairies, then we have a better chance of avoiding harmful wildfires.”
Jeremy joined The Nature Conservancy in 2008 and has been lighting (controlled) fires ever since. Today, as the Conservancy’s associate director of fire training, he particularly takes joy in organizing classroom and field training events that bring together ranchers, government staff and private landowners and Native Americans from the United States and beyond.
“Like doctors practice medicine, we practice fire. It’s a continual learning experience,” he says.
Recently, Jeremy has worked with the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk tribes along the Klamath River in the mountains of northern California.
“This region has been a safe and productive place to live for more than 13,000 years,” notes Jeremy. “These tribes, their ancestors have used fire to keep their forests healthy, which in turn has provided strong redwoods for canoes, plants for basket making and bountiful acorns from tanoak trees.”
Acorns have been a staple in the tribes’ diets for generations. Acorn water is an essential part of spiritual ceremonies, and acorn soup, which is easy to digest, is often given to people who are sick as well as the elderly. In fact, the elders of the tribes are known to savor acorns like other people savor candy.
Hazel sticks are used to make basket frames, but hazel needs to be burned to ensure it grows straight and is pliable. Bear grass, another fire-dependent plant, is also an important plant for basketry.
“The women of these tribes are bar none the finest basket makers in the world. When we were helping the Karuk with controlled burns, the women were glowing they were so happy that we burned lands that produced the reeds needed for their baskets.”
Rewards don’t come easy, though. Risk is an inherent part of a fireworker’s life.
“When working a fire, my head is on a swivel all the time, constantly looking left to right, ready to step out of the way. We don’t take lunch breaks. You take your sandwich out of your bag and eat it while watching the fire.
“Fire is so dynamic that it just changes from one slope to the next, from one hour to the next, from one plant community to the next. You never turn your back on a fire – any fire.”
One of the best defenses a fireworker has is his (or her) clothes and gear. No fireworker steps foot in the field without Nomex® (special flame-resistant fiber) shirt and pants, a cotton undershirt and regulation hardhat and leather boots.
“Our shirts are permanently soot-stained, and we go through pants like crazy, particularly working grass fires. Grass on fire is like a sprint, it moves so quickly and our pants get hot from it that they lose their protective quality. And our boots get such a work out, they only last a couple of years.”
As for equipment, fireworkers carry everything from a shovel to a drip torch, a metal can that literally drips fire. But one thing that’s not on any equipment list is a fireworker’s lucky charm.
“I carry a little red buffalo made from stone,” says Jeremy. “Red buffalo is the name many tribes gave to fire because it runs across the endless prairies like a herd of red buffalo. I keep it in my pocket during burns.”
Suddenly, Jeremy, who’s on his way to a fire training event in New Mexico, realizes he left his red buffalo on his desk in Salt Lake City. Unfazed by superstition, Jeremy knows his training and experience are the real lucky charms.