Just a few minutes after he and his crew intentionally set a small patch of bone-dry grass and brush ablaze in a Grant Creek neighborhood on Wednesday morning, Robert Dillon marveled at how quickly the fire spread.
“It’s burning like it’s July,” he observed. “It’s scary.”
Dillon wasn’t worried though. He and his employees at Robert Dillon Tree and Forestry Service are all highly trained professional wildland firefighters, and they were being paid by the landowner to start a prescribed burn to protect the home in the event of a wildfire.
In heavily forested areas or places with tall grass, many homeowners choose to get a head start on Mother Nature by paying private foresters to burn the excess fuel before the summer’s hot, dry weather sets in and increases the chance of an unpredictable blaze.
This time of year, Dillon and his three-man crew are extremely busy. Some days they're burning a farmer’s ditch and other days they’re thinning the lower branches of pine trees on a heavily-wooded property to prevent a crown fire.
Dillon said his prices vary.
“It depends on the fuel type, exactly what we’re burning,” he explained. “Like this is going to be fine fuels like grass. We don’t have any real heavy understory here, which is kind of nice. It depends on terrain, how big it is, so it varies quite a bit. The risk is a little bit higher with heavy understory. We have higher flames and longer burn periods so we have to keep crews overnight a lot of times. We camped out a few nights on our last job.”
To prepare a prescribed burn, the crew sets out road signs informing the neighbors that they will see smoke. They also inform the local fire department, and they have to be constantly vigilant of weather conditions.
“The wind is primarily out of the southwest right now, but who knows, you always have to check it, monitor it constantly,” Dillon said.
They burn the land in small areas, a process they call “stripping” because they go in small strips, using the wind to their advantage. They will also use roads and driveways, which block the progress of fire, to their advantage as well.
Instead of digging lines to prevent the fire from spreading to certain areas, they will hose down a swath using a Type 6 engine with a mobile water tank.
“We’re real light on the land, we do wet lines with hoses,” Dillon said.
When they’re ready to burn, they start a radio check and use rakes to sweep debris away from trees. Using a drip torch that burns a mixture of three-quarters diesel and a quarter gasoline, Dillon’s crew lights up a short strip with their backs to the wind and a road barrier downwind. In short order, the smoke is billowing up and after a few minutes the land is black, with pine cones glowing red and then turning to white piles of ash. Dillon’s employees wear protective gear and don’t seem to mind walking right through flames that are licking their ankles.
Every piece of property that burns under control in the spring is one less piece of property that is at risk from going up in flames unexpectedly in the dog days of summer, Dillon said. The Grant Creek neighborhood where they worked on Wednesday was not far from where a wildfire blew up last summer.
“We’re getting this community pretty fire-wise,” Dillon said. “It’s a wildlife refuge up there and it’s thick. You know when a fire hits up there, it’s so close in proximity to people’s homes that they are just trying to protect their homes and their neighbors.”
The home where they worked had a metal roof and stone barriers to prevent grass from creeping right up to the side of the house.
“You always want at least 100 feet of defensible space,” he explained.
Although the fire only takes a few minutes to burn through a few acres, Dillon and his crew will spend the majority of their time conducting “mop-up” duties, making sure every last ember and hot spot is out before they go home.
“We’ll actually take our gloves off and use the back of our hands to feel for heat,” he said. “The mop up is a lot of work. We’ll be out late tonight and back early in the morning.”
Although it may seem stressful to work with such and unpredictable force as fire, Dillon and his team seem at ease.
“It’s fun,” he said. “You kind of have to be a little bit of a pyromaniac.”