birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Setting the Woods on Fire

I guess one day when I was with Mal killing privet he started talking about setting the whole patch on fire, with a helicopter, shooting out potassium permanganate filled ping-pong balls that would ignite on the way down to start the burn in a precise way.

Then I realized I knew somebody who knew the fire ecologist for the Department of Natural Reaources for the state. Then we were all out drinking and I started repeating what Mal had said about the potassium permanganate ping-pong balls and she said, “Do you want to come out and burn with us?”

It involved a lot of videos online designed for Western wildland firefighters, with quizzes on upcanyon and downcanyon winds and parables about Mann Gulch. Then there was a timed walk around a track wearing 40 lbs of weight, and a weekend of in-person practice exercises. Then I got to put on a Nomex suit and a hard hat and go burn with them. They burned state parks and public lands, with the objective of suppressing invasive species and giving native species more of a chance to establish themselves; they also hoped to replicate the regular lightning-ignited burns that used to keep southeastern woodlands from ever building up too much burnable materials.

I remember being in a thicket with two plant specialists and a drip torch — they were disturbingly excited to see wisteria on fire that was choking out some plants they cared much more about. We put gaps and boundaries in place, we set the fire, we stayed late making sure it burned itself out. The heat, the flame, the dramatic destructiveness were all interesting, despite how long and hard the days were. Later I met a plant expert who criticized the frenzy for burning she saw in the fire ecology team, something she saw as too gleeful, too extreme. But I loved being so close up in the land’s business, trying to understand and undo the patterns humans had imposed that were getting in the way.

Adult Child

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