Out west, fires have names.
“The first fire we worked was called the ‘Burnt Fire,’” recalled Caleb Grantham, a restoration specialist for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois who recently helped fight fires burning at Wind Cave National Park, Custer National Forest, and on other federal lands. “We also worked on the Himes Peak, Rankin, and Beaver Fires.”
Caleb and two other Southern Illinois Nature Conservancy employees, Hugo Goulet-Papazian and Toby Warren, joined other Midwestern representatives from the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota this summer to provide help during the busiest fire season of the year.
“They need the extra help because the fires out there are just non-stop,” Caleb explained. “They burn starting in early spring and burn right through the fall. There’s so much fuel built up on the ground, and anything that lights up can smolder for weeks.”
Across the West, as well as in Caleb’s home state of Illinois, fire has shaped natural habitats for thousands of years. More recently, however, fires have been suppressed as prairies are tilled, forests are cut down, and land is developed. Across the Midwest and in other parts of the country, the lack of fire causes remaining natural habitats to degrade and invasive species to flourish. Out West, where the climate is drier, it can lead to harmful megafires.
“Many of the fires out West are due to lighting,” Caleb explained. “There are a ton of different lightning strikes throughout the summer months, and because these natural areas are so fire-deprived, there’s too much fuel like dry leaves and brush built up. Drier tree species have encroached on these areas as they have become more enclosed, and those pine needles make the perfect fuel.”
As the leader of the Southern Illinois Invasive Species Strike Team, Caleb works with controlled burns on a regular basis to not only inhibit the spread of invasive species that harm native plants and wildlife, but to mimic the historic, natural processes and disturbances that once occurred throughout the extremely diverse Illinois region. He also collaborates with different conservation partners to protect and manage natural lands across Southern Illinois. A big part of his role is amplifying the use of controlled, managed burns on public and adjacent private lands.
“When you have a lot of natural areas that are next to one another, but they’re all owned and protected by different people, it can be difficult to get a consistent management strategy in place,” Caleb said. “We’ve been thrilled that through our efforts, partners are really working together and as a result, we’re able to burn across a wider swath of natural areas for a real impact.”
The team has already seen a rebound in the rare ovate catchfly as a result of controlled burns. In one area, the number of plants increased from a handful to more than 100 after one of the Strike Team’s controlled burns. Between January 2016 and April 2017, they worked year-round and treated 14,112.17 acres of habitat at 51 different natural areas.
But for this most recent assignment, Caleb wasn’t using fire to control invasive plants. He was fighting fire with fire – literally.
“Basically, it was like we were performing a controlled burn inside the fire,” Caleb explained. “We burned excess fuel and then put in a fire line to keep it contained until it extinguished. By the time the bigger fire reached that area, there was no fuel to feed it.”
Afterwards, Caleb and the rest of the crew performed “mop up” work, which involves checking the entire area to ensure each ember has been put out. This process can be tedious, and dirty, as in some cases ash is examined by hand to make sure all heat has been extinguished. The tough parts of the job are not without their rewards, though.
“It was incredible being out in the mountains,” Caleb said. “I loved seeing the different terrain. We saw bison, moose, and bighorn sheep. At night when we camped under the stars, we would hear the coyotes howling. I was honored to help conserve and protect the immensely diverse habitats out west by aiding in fire suppression tactics. The abundant wildlife we came across in just three weeks’ time was inspiring in itself to continue my passion in habitat conservation and restoration.”
For Caleb, another reward was the time he spent with people from across the country who were united by a single purpose.
“That’s one thing I really loved about this opportunity, was meeting so many people from different agencies who have a real passion for the work,” Caleb said. “There are even a few who have regular jobs, but who have been trained in fire work and use their vacation time come out a few weeks each year to help. They love conservation that much.”
It’s enough to make Caleb want to come back and do it all over again next year—and his help will be needed.
“We learned during our trip that megafire activity is becoming more and more frequent,” Caleb said. “As the climate changes, it’s likely that these kind of events will continue to increase.”