Smoke! Fire!!

Thursday, October 21, 2010
Despite losing our leaves what seems like a long time ago, we've been having a knock-out October in these parts. The nip in the air has been perfectly complimented by bright blue skies and just the slightest breezes. (Of course, we're all worried about the decided lack of rain as the lake levels get lower and lower, but that's another topic for another day.) And all that beautiful weather translates into smoke in the air.

We live on a small pocket of private land in a national forest. As you head up the road towards the cabin, the rolling hills of mixed forest that dominate alongside Lake Superior start to fade into granite outcroppings as you approach the very southern edge of the Boreal forest. This is a landscape that's been shaped by fire for centuries, if not millenia and as a result, one of the prime ways the local forestry agency keeps the forest healthy is by lighting control burns we know as "prescribed burns."

Prescribed burns are meant to be a fairly routine procedure around here, but pulling off what is essentially a controlled forest fire is kind of tricky business. On top of needing very particular weather conditions to pull off the burns, funding can often be a roadblock since the burns are controlled by a federal agency. But all the pieces of the puzzles have somehow miraculously fit together this fall and last week, a (very) large plume of smoke appeared on the south edge of our lake from a prescribed burn, several thousand acres in size, that had been lit about 15 miles southwest from the cabin. For the past week and a half, the air's often filled with the smell of campfire. The smoke in the air can make the setting sun look a bit like a candled egg.

It can be funny to think that a bit of smoke in the air is probably one of the most natural things to smell up here on a fall day. Beyond the wood that heats so many of our homes or roasts our marshmallows, we tend to think of fire only in destructive terms. A large part of my summer was spent talking with people who had just seen the evidence of our 2007 wildfire for the first time. Fire often doesn't look real great and we forget its functionality. I just read in The Secrets of Wildflowers that Native Americans used fires to in the eastern part of the United States for agricultural purposes for hundreds of years before the Europeans showed up.Fire is a powerful tool if we use it correctly and Mother Nature's ability to recover so spectacularly after a fire should be considered miraculous, in my opinion.

Andy's been part of the volunteer fire department for the last couple years. Today he's helping out with the prescribed burns, mostly being available in case one of the fires creeps out of its designated boundaries and makes a run for a residential area. Both Andy and I grew up with forest fires being treated as a necessary reality of life in the woods. To us, the smoke doesn't signal distress, but something exciting that helps our forest grow strong.

After all, it's just a bit of smoke in the air.

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