Contributed photo

On a day featuring nearly five hours of prescribed fire to help maintain the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s 14-acre portion of the sandplain grassland blueberry barren just south of Pleasant Hill Road, I only saw one of the 13 fire-tenders run once. That happened an hour-plus into the burn as the flame-line neared the woods on the northeastern edge of the field, and the wind — now shifted to the south — blew a gust into it. The flames leapt and billowed; the smoke thickened. It was important to keep up with it.

But Maine Forest Service Ranger and Burn Boss Aliesha Black and Brunswick Fire Chief Ken Brillant and their crew of eleven fire professionals and volunteers were well prepared for shifting conditions. Which, given the volatile nature of air and flame, was a good thing.

April 8 broke nicely for a burn. During an early conversation with fire plan architect John Leavitt, he gestured to clear air over the field and said, “You can already see the thermals forming.” Also, other burn metrics — temperature, relative humidity and wind speed among them — fell in the “desired” range. The plan — 14 pages in all — would guide Black, Brillant and their eleven crew members throughout the day.

Much of their prep involved positioning water in places where it might be needed and, throughout the morning yellow-shirted crew members dragged hoses along the firebreak on the field’s north side and filled a 1,500-gallon reservoir. An observer could also see the fire-resistant yellow shirts winking at various distances as each crew member walked the burn field to become familiar with it.

In addition, two tanker-vehicles, a Forest Service ATV and the Brunswick Fire Department’s truck named Brush 1, made hundreds more gallons of water portable. And finally, as noon neared, and after Black gave a full-crew briefing, most of the firefighters shrugged on various packs, some metal, some synthetic fabric, each filled with water and equipped with a spray-hose.

The plan was to burn up into the northeast wind, which was light but insistent throughout the morning. An upwind burn moves more slowly, often achieving an effect akin to that of a low-set mower. What was shaggy with waving grasses and shrubs often looks shorn after burning, a sort of blackened buzzcut.

At noon Chief Brillant lit the day’s test fire. As the flames caught and flared in the grass, everyone nearby — Burn Boss Black especially — watched. It rose as a fist of fire; fingers of flame unfurled and it began to spread. “Okay,” Black said, and the burn was on. Yellow-shirts with drip torches, canisters that drip little blobs of fire from their nozzles, began firing a line further along the firebreak at field’s edge. What had been a spot fire quickly became a 50- then 100-yard burn-line, it orange flames twisting and waving.

A few minutes later from a nearby hillock, I watched the heated, nearly transparent air race straight up above the flames and heard Leavitt say, “That’s a good burn. Perfect.”

The fire seemed to peak a little after 1 p.m., as it burned toward the woods north of Linnhaven and along the Blueberry Loop Trail. A brief shift to freshened south wind then seemed to spawn the day’s spectacle. A fire whorl rose and spun, its smoke whirling straight up for a few hundred feet, and then tailing in a still-visible spiral toward the west. Here, with their tornado mimicry, were fire dynamics that spoke of intensity.

The trail then served as a break point and, as the fire burned to a stop there, Black concentrated her crew along the woods where the fire closed on its north edge.

I asked Black about those moments when we talked later, and she said the line had held nicely, that they’d had plenty of hands and water to deal with the spot where the fire had skipped over the shorn firebreak. Black had then turned their attention to the woods beyond, setting up a grid search to be sure no more fire had been blown into the woods.

One sector of the field remained between the Loop trail and the northern woods. The fire crew would re-drag their hoses along the north flank, surround the sector with yellow shirts and then fire it. After the fire dwindled, the two vehicles would cruise the burn dealing with leftover hot spots in fallen wood. By 5:30 p.m. the blackened field would empty, the sky clear. Regeneration of the barren would begin with the next rain.

Thanks for permitting me to watch their work, thanks to Burn Boss Aliesha Black, Brunswick Fire Chief, Ken Brillant, Forest Service IFO, Kent Nelson, and BTLT Stewardship Manager, Margaret Gerber.

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. He writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; He may be reached at [email protected]

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