Another firefighter aimed his drip torch, containing a mixture of diesel and gasoline, toward some dry vegetation and a few seconds later, flames leaped several feet high.
Others in yellow shirts and red hardhats fanned out along the perimeter of the controlled burn Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve to keep fire from escaping pre-established boundaries.
More than 200 species of birds, amphibians and mammals make their home in the lush 894-acre oasis along the Colorado River just outside of Moab.
“This wetlands is critical waterfowl habitat in this area,” said burn boss Jeremy Bailey of The Nature Conservancy’s Salt Lake City office.
But the area has increasingly been impacted by the growth of bull rushes and sedges, which reduce wildlife’s access to water.
Last week’s goal was to reduce those plants by up to 85 percent in a burn led by The Nature Conservancy. The nonprofit organization owns about half the preserve with the other half belonging to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
About 200 acres were burned during the day-long event. Willows and cottonwood trees were spared.
“We’re using this fire to manage the habitat,” Bailey said. “The bull rushes have just taken over and we want to knock them back.”
Other benefits are a reduction in fire fuel and mosquito abatement in the preserve. The last controlled burn on the preserve was in 2010.
Besides The Nature Conservancy, firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Natural Resources took part last week. The 35-member team came from Richfield, Salt Lake City, Price, Monticello and Moab.
Rachel Cresto of the BLM’s Moab office was among them. She helped hold the fire line on a western perimeter, ready to dig an additional firebreak if needed.
Cresto hoped to do some igniting with a drip torch later in the day.
“It’s really fun to light,” she said. “Everyone gets that chance.”
Firefighters rotated from spot to spot so nobody had to breathe smoke all day.
The burn had been scheduled for Monday, Oct. 15, but weather conditions would have kept the area socked in by smoke, so it was postponed. The forecast for the next day called for high winds, postponing the burn again. Besides wind, which must be no more than 5 miles per hour, humidity is another factor that must line up correctly.
“Today is forecast to be fantastic so we’re getting it done,” Bailey said. “You’re always trying to find a middle ground.”
The science of field burning isn’t new, he emphasized. Native Americans practiced it before Europeans arrived in North America.
Northern Plains Indians burned to promote healthy future blueberry bushes, Bailey said. Central plains Indians used the technique to attract bison to burned areas where new greenery would soon sprout. Indians also burned grasses to drive animals toward hunters waiting for them, Bailey added.
As he toured the fire lines in an ATV, the fire boss occasionally drove within 20 to 25 feet of sizeable blazes. The heat was intense on the face of anyone riding on the fire’s side of the vehicle.
Each firefighter brought some snacks and a water bottle to get them through the day. No one stopped for a lunch break because fire monitoring is a constant focus.
“Once you’ve got fire on the ground you have to ride it out,” Bailey said.