Q&A: Woodland Fire Module Leader Erick Stahlin
Fri, Oct 22, 2010 at 3:21 PM
By Kerry L. Brophy-Lloyd/The Nature Conservancy
For Erick Stahlin, a typical day in the office involves hiking miles into the mountains, hefting a pack that can weigh up to 60 pounds, and taking the heat, literally.
Erick leads the Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, a job that sends him and his seven-member team throughout the West to restore forest health with safe, scientifically-designed prescribed burns.
The Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module was created in April 2008 in order to help restore Colorado's forests. The Module is also trained to assist federal agencies to allow natural wildland fires to burn in ways that will help restore hundreds of thousands of acres.
Nature.org caught up with Erick during a rare break between assignments to find out what it takes to be a wildland firefighter and what fire has to teach us about forest restoration.
Nature.org: Can you describe a typical day on the job for your team?
Erick Stahlin: On a typical assignment, we’re “spiked out” close to a fire, often in a very remote location. It can take up to two days to hike into a restoration project, so we have to carry everything on our backs and be prepared to camp out for several days.
Nature.org: What’s on your back?
Erick Stahlin: What we call our “line gear” includes everything that keeps us happy while we’re out: fire shelters, water, food, weather kits, rain jackets, electrolyte tablets and ibuprofen. We also carry chainsaws, hand tools and big jugs with fuel.
Nature.org: Sounds heavy. And hot.
Erick Stahlin: Yes, especially when it’s 90 degrees outside with only 8 percent humidity, the sun’s beating down on you, and there’s the heat from the fire. We’re also wearing a lot of clothes: cargo pants and shirts, hard hats and packs.
Nature.org: Can you talk about your most recent assignment?
Erick Stahlin: We just returned from New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, where we were working in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness along the Continental Divide Trail supporting a lightning-sparked wildfire being used to restore a ponderosa pine forest. These forests have a natural cycle of low to moderate intensity fires that burn every three to seven years and clean up the forest. This pattern prevents the build-up of hazardous fuel loads that could get out of control.
On this job, we hiked eight miles roundtrip each day into the fire. In the mornings, we completed objectives like keeping the fire in a certain area so it wouldn’t threaten Mexican spotted owl and Gila trout habitat. We’re basically mimicking Mother Nature, while steering natural fire to meet our restoration goals.
Nature.org: If fire is such an important part of a forest, why are people so afraid of it?
Erick Stahlin: When talking about fire, I like to say there’s good fire and bad fire. Bad fires get out of control, and there’s reason to fear them. We’re trying to help preserve human life when we’re suppressing large fires. These big burns happen because humans took fire out of the forest ecosystem, and that has caused a build-up of fuel and fires that are unnaturally large and hazardous.
But good fires are low-to-moderate burns that achieve positive ecological outcomes for a forest. So what we’re trying to do is reintroduce fire at a natural and appropriate level. We want to mimic fire’s behavior in order to accomplish what happened before humans put fires out.
Nature.org: So you have to really understand fire to do your job.
Erick Stahlin: It’s always best to know how to put out a fire if you’re going to start one. I and my team must have very specific training and qualifications to do our job. We have to understand how fire acts so we can mimic that behavior to help the land. You can learn a lot about fire’s natural job when you watch Mother Nature.
Nature.org: Who determines what assignments your team is sent out on?
Erick Stahlin: We’re part of the Federal Interagency Fire Dispatch System, a way to move resources around the nation in order to meet the needs of specific areas that require firefighters and equipment. The system moves us around like pieces on a chess board. We share responsibilities across the system and can increase our impact more by working together than alone. For instance, while we were treating a burn in New Mexico, a team from New Mexico was controlling a fire in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Nature.org: How does wildlife respond to fire?
Erick Stahlin: Animals know what’s going on before we do. It’s amazing to see the sixth sense they have with forest fires. On our most recent assignment in New Mexico, I was walking along monitoring the fire and walked right up on elk calf feeding next to the fire. I also saw three black bears walking through the fire like it was another day at the office.
Fire’s just a natural part of what wildlife live with—it’s always been there so you could say it’s engrained in their genes. It’s not like the Disney movie Bambi at all…that movie did a good job of scaring everyone away from fires.
Nature.org: What does your team do between assignments, and where will you be sent next?
Erick Stahlin: We’re full time, so we’re working whether there’s a fire or not. We do forest health projects, and of course we’re always training. We also work a lot with private, federal, state and county landowners to help them use fire as a restoration tool on their lands.
As far as where we’ll be next, we live by Mother Nature so we could get a call in the next five minutes and be gone.
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