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Fighting fire with fire | Teams meet in Maine for prescribed burn training

Thirty professionals from across the U.S. and Nova Scotia came to Maine for a two-week training exchange.

WELLS, Maine — When wildfire threatens people, plants, and animals, sometimes the best prescription is more flames.

For two weeks, Dave Walker and 30 other forest professionals from across the United States and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia are training to be better stewards of the land. On Wednesday, they gathered in Wells to see how well they could run a prescribed or controlled burn.

"It’s not a last resort," Walker (who holds the title of burn boss) said. "It’s an additional benefit to us to help us aid in suppression."

Controlled burns can be used for multiple reasons — to slow an out-of-control wildfire but also — to renew certain plant life, which, in turn, offers less fuel to a future fire if one spreads nearby.

Jon Bailey works for The Nature Conservancy, which owns the 1,000-acre plot of land hosting the prescribed burn. He was thrilled to see the crews sharing fire-fighting perspectives from their neck of the woods. It’s a win for the land as well.

"We’re cleansing it. We’re rejuvenating it. And these plants and the blueberry are gonna grow back and be great for next season," Bailey said. 

Much of the land was cleared years ago to make way for a now-defunct blueberry farm. The low-bush fruit, Bailey explained, along with other plant and animal species on the property, benefit from periodic controlled burns. 

The teams make spaced-out lines of fire, like stitches in a quilt. When the wind cooperates, within minutes — even seconds — the blackened patchwork takes shape. The teams operated like a small military outfit, with strategy briefings and attempts to flank and to position personnel, so they always have routes of egress. 

Their enemy and ally is a force of nature that can shift its intentions quickly with each changing breeze.

"It’s not nerve-wracking because you’ve developed a set of skills and something that we like to refer to as a set of slides," Walker said, pointing to his head. "We’ve experienced fire many times in different fashions, and we utilize those slides. We tap into those slides to understand what's going on and what we need to do next."

By the end of the two weeks, Walker hoped, the next time any of these professionals walk into a smoke-filled wilderness, they’ll have the slides they need to get the job done and keep everyone safe.

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