What I Learned Photographing My First Environmental Controlled Burn
Mar 27, 2019 | By: Lindsey Janies Photography
Just like so many other drivers, I've seen the smoke, or smelt it coming through the vents in my car as I'd passed through rows of pine trees and savanna areas. Always initially alarmed, thinking the worst: it's a forest fire! I'd then pass a sign that read "Controlled Burn Ahead Do Not Report". I knew there are benefits and that it was completely different and unlike an actual WILDfire, yet it seemed so similar. What makes up the controlled part of the name? It's still fire spreading across a large area of land, yet does it only mean there are people watching over it? Because from my perspective: Fire cannot be controlled... right?!
Controlled burn expert Kurt Kotteman observing his latest ignition area, while another team member continues to patrol the line of fire and it's reaction to the changing wind and humidity levels. The unkept adjacent property in such close proximity shows on the right, while the preserved longleaf pines are silhouetted in the distance.
To tell the story of what a controlled burn looks like, as well as what all goes into such work through photography.
Client: A national environmental protection company
Purpose: (my interpretational summary) To be able to share how such a publicly misunderstood process works: the hard work involved, the contracted team's method of controlling such a burn, and what remains afterward - the natural and environmental benefits of this work
Subject matter: 700 acres of savanna covered in invasive natural grasses, as well as some beautiful long leaf pine trees, predominantly in their younger years.
- It takes weeks of planning and preparation. Observing the moisture in the ground and air from past rains (or lack thereof). As well as using a bulldozer to "mow" a safety line surrounding the acreage, and providing those areas enough time at the right time of the year to sprout green grasses back as a safety net between the actionable land and the other unkept, highly volatile properties.
- This takes a HIGHLY skilled team of controlled burn specialists.
- 700 acres of fire, seemingly so much potential for disaster, and three men handling it all.... THREE MEN vs 700 ACRES!
- When doing such work, wear all cotton clothing, and the tallest mud boots your own (water moccasins were prevalent in the lower wet areas).
- On days of virtually no wind, there's still a wind current small enough that must be continuously monitored and considered in order to keep it under control.
- Fire remains efficient, useful and purposeful when kept in a thin line only. The team accomplished this by creating the fire line to head into the wind, never with the wind.
- Surrounding roadways and the certainty that visibility for the passing cars as well as the team must be considered. (Sheriff's office from Ragley closed the road adjacent to the land on Thursday.)
- Only a few gallons of water and fuel is actually needed! From my perspective, 98% of the project relies solely on the talent and expertise of the burn team.
- Very little supplies were needed, considering the size of this land: 1 bulldozer, 3 four-wheelers, 2 water tanks, a couple small tanks of fuel, and 3 drip cans... OH! and most importantly: THREE MEN WHO CAN HANDLE HIGH IMPACT, HIGH STRESS SITUATIONS AT THE DROP OF A HAT FOR UP TO 12 HOURS.
Greenery will not burn within a line only of fire. When I witnessed how consistently true this was, I recalled memories of the dare to jump over a campfire as a kid: the excitement of realizing the risk if I was too slow, but the "harmlessness" by jumping through it quick enough. The pine trees were the kids jumping through undamaged. They are green right now and contain enough water within their makeup to withstand the flames for short periods. The dried grasses, however, were hungry to ignite.
The perfect, efficient method for purging all that's unwanted; keeping only what matters most to the team and their client - the long leaf pine trees.
As a hobbyist gardener, I observed the other environmental benefits to this process: the natural compost added now. This allows the burnt grasses to transform from a nuisance into the necessary natural nutrients for the trees. The trees will also no longer compete for root system expansion and now bask in full sunlight!
The process of documenting such an event was stressful, adventurous, extremely fascinating, and somewhat exhausting..! I had only THOUGHT I'd had experience in working "on the fly" in remote conditions with essential equipment only. (Most recently the most strenuous was the five weeks solo traveling cross country documenting a barge from a rental car.) But this challenged me even more. I had to carry all that I could keep on me, leaving my security blanket of backup equipment, portable chargers, my almond snacks!, etc at the truck for most of the day.
What I chose to carry on me on foot and 4 wheeler:
- Nikon D800 with 70-200 lens
- Fuji Xpro2 with wide angle lens
- my "gopro on a stick" rig,
- Yeti growler of lemon water
- Peak Design shoulder bag (ash dust became my arch nemesis)
- my beloved Tumi fanny pack (holding my phone and sunscreen)
- and still needed to manage a 3 point strap vest holding a radio
Towards the "finale" of this documentary day, I was picked up from a location and told I could only bring my 2 cameras and water, leaving my other precious equipment in the black charred ground with the fire line having just passed. *Insert my complete "oh shit!" face and my anxious mind going nuts at the idea of leaving it unattended next to FIRE.*
Budgeting battery power and remaining memory on the camera cards became extremely critical. None of us knew if we had another hour, or 5 hours - that would only be determined by so many of the unforeseen changes in the fire, wind, and changing ambient temperature.
They had the dozer and equipment loaded back onto the trailers, finished by 7:00. It totally would have been about 20 minutes sooner, if I hadn't got myself stuck in mud in the boons... and I only drove it for 5 minutes! :|
Exhausted to a point of feeling mildly drunk, I drove the hour home with a heart and spirit FILLED with gratitude for the entire experience! Thankful that my commercial career had brought me yet again an assignment that challenged me out of my comfort zone, and birthed photography of a such a unique career these men have, completing these jobs safely and methodically, every day..!