« All News

Volunteer Newsletter: Burning with volunteers – a learning experience!

a prescribed burn crew a Poplar Creek. Photo by Daniel Suarez.
A prescribed burn crew a Poplar Creek. Photo by Daniel Suarez.

The Forest Preserves’ burn program, in many respects, began with volunteers. While I don’t have a detailed history around this issue, volunteers have been burning at the Forest Preserves for many years. Whether it was an all-out prescribed burn or letting a brush pile creep across a few acres, the benefits of fire were well known to these stewards of the land.  While Forest Preserves staff at some of our Nature Centers were using fire as a management tool as early as the 1960s, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Forest Preserves really started to formalize a “burn program.” 

As Forest Preserves staff started to prioritize fire, we were reliant on the expertise of the local volunteer groups. These individuals had an innate knowledge of all aspects of the sites they were working on, including fuel types, topography, hazards and the all-important fire breaks. The site steward, and in some cases other volunteers at the site, would assist Forest Preserves staff (or the other way around!) in conducting the prescribed burn.

Now in October 2016, staff have made fire a priority for the last several years and the District has a robust, multifaceted program that burned over 7,000 acres during the course of the fall 2014 through the spring 2015 fire season. While volunteers are no longer leading burns, they remain a key component to the success of this program. Forest Preserves staff regularly collaborate with and consult the expertise of the local volunteer groups.  All these years later, these individuals are still the go-to for their innate knowledge of all aspects of the sites they are working on. The site stewards, and in many cases other volunteers at the site, assist Forest Preserves staff in conducting the prescribed burn.

Volunteers that have completed the necessary training are put to work out on the fire line, igniting with a drip torch, suppressing fire with a back pack, holding a line with a flapper or clearing vegetation to make a break. Yes, you read that correctly, volunteers can burn with the forest preserves. I have worked with many volunteers over the years on the fire line and bask in the glow of the challenges and rewards of having them on our team.

While volunteers are a valuable asset on the fire line, there are also several challenges to consider. When working with new prescribed burn volunteers – whether they indicate they are experienced or not – you have to proceed cautiously and delegate responsibility appropriately. It’s a balancing act. On the one hand, you don’t want to overwhelm them; and on the other, you don’t want them to lose interest. I’ve found that having first time burners — whether burning with me for the first time or burning for the first time period – running the drip torch is a good way to assess their knowledge, understanding of fire, and if they can follow instructions. In order to become a valuable asset to the team, experience is the key and in the prescribed fire world experience is hands-on. The more burns you participate on the better.

Another consideration is availability. The burn season takes no prisoners and when we go, we go. From a staff stand point, this is easily addressed by adjusting work schedules and shifting staff to meet our needs. With volunteers, this is more difficult and one of the main reasons we don’t rely exclusively on volunteers. If weather allows, we burn on every day that ends in “Y,” and we have our best turnout – surprise! – on the weekends. I recognize the difficulty for people to adjust their schedules on the fly with full time work and family obligations, so we are happy to take advantage of people when they are available.

A related issue to availability is site selection. Some volunteers will only want to burn at their site and not the one across the street or a few miles north, and certainly not several miles to the east. I understand this and again, we’re happy to have folks wherever and whenever they can come out.

Another consideration is expectations. I’ve found that volunteers have varying degrees of expectations when coming out to burn. A person that is volunteering their time wants it to be utilized and maximized in the best possible way. The problem is that our concept of this and the volunteers’ concept are not always the same. I’ve seen this from the standpoint of volunteers not feeling like they were needed or part of the crew. There are also situations where a volunteer feels that we didn’t burn enough of the site and/or burn it the right way, or that the fire was rather boring (think woodland), or the work was more difficult than they expected. While all of these items are relatively easily addressed through clear communication with volunteers ahead of time, it does complicate the process a bit.

On the rewards side of the line there are many benefits to consider. I’ll start with my favorite, and that is buy-in.  When I have a volunteer that has worked at a site for several years and they are able to come out and burn on that site, I know they are committed hook, line and sinker. The level of excitement is usually on par with the first time you get to sit in the front seat of the car as a kid. I have had many a volunteer, including volunteer stewards, thank the entire crew and expound on how great it will be to see the site during the growing season. These episodes create buy-in on the staff side as well.  While we work with volunteers on a regular basis, working side-by-side on a burn and witnessing the stewards and volunteers’ level of enthusiasm firsthand really drives home the importance of their work, and ours, to staff. This one is a win-win!

Another benefit is staff rest. Staff rest? A benefit? You bet. When we have volunteers come out, it allows for staff to potentially do less work so they’ll be fresher the next day when we may not have any volunteers. When we add an extra person or two on each crew, I may be able to have a full-time staffer monitor smoke on a trail off the fire line, thus providing for a relatively smoke-free work day in which to recuperate after what might have been several non-stop days of intense physical work and sucking smoke.  Having staff rest and volunteers gain valuable experience is another win-win.

Another benefit is expansion of work. If we have enough volunteers come out, we can split the crew up and may be able to burn at different locations, or two units on one site simultaneously. This divide and conquer scenario has worked several times, particularly on weekends, to our advantage. Again, more experience for volunteers and more acreage getting burned… another win-win.

Overall, a strong volunteer presence creates a stronger burn program. I have several volunteers now that have burned with me so many times and are so experienced they are like regular crew members. We have developed a trusted relationship on the fire line, and these individuals handle the full responsibility of our fire line crew members without question. We are in the early stages of developing a volunteer crew that we hope we will be able to plug in to our program as a fully functional part of the team. I have been working with Steve Flexman, Key Steward for the Northwest Region, to coordinate this crew that burns across the northwest region of the Forest Preserves. We, the Forest Preserves and volunteers, are really excited about our initial burns with this crew. I hope that we will continue to gain experience and ultimately expand this pilot program to other areas of the Preserves.

Prescribed fire is the most dynamic tool in the land management tool box and the most difficult to utilize. It is a natural process that we have not yet figured out how to replicate as nature intended. The need for fire to manage our preserves will be never ending.  How will we meet the demand as we continue to manage our holdings? While the equation to answer this question has many variables, volunteers are a key component to the solution. I have been prescribed burning for over 20 years now, closing in on 600 burns, and I learn something new each time. Sometimes the fire itself is teaching me a lesson, but more often than not it’s the people I’m burning with and I’ve learned a lot from volunteers over these many years!

Fall fire season begins, on average, November 1. All who have completed the Chicago Wilderness Prescription Burn Training or the S-130, S-190 are welcomed to volunteer. To register for the Rx Burn opportunities, please upload your training certificate to your volunteer profile. If you are having issues registering or can’t find your certificate, please email volunteer.fpd@cookcountyil.gov. Looking forward to a great fall burn season with you!

By John McCabe, Forest Preserves Director of Resource Management.