Letter From Michiana: Controlled burn

By David Hoppe

The smell of wood smoke — caressing, rich and warm — filled the air. The bonfires we’d set ablaze hissed and popped.  We leaned on our shovels and rakes and stared into the flames.

It was over a year ago that a group of us assembled in Stockwell Woods to wrangle an overabundance of fallen logs into large piles for burning. Stockwell is a remnant woodland, an undulating landscape, canopied by majestic oaks. It belongs to Save the Dunes, one of our community’s most venerable environmental organizations and, in fits and starts, we’ve been working to make it more accessible.

We knew we would have to do a burn back there. Fortunately, we had Neal, the former Burn Boss at the National Park and a volunteer fireman in nearby Beverly Shores, to help us. Neal recommended we burn in the winter, when the ground was sodden. He assisted in the permitting process and outlined the conditions necessary for safety’s sake — a lack of wind and high relative humidity were keys. He kept an eye on National Weather Service reports; on Monday, when he saw the stars aligning in our favor, gave us the go-ahead for the following morning.

We were lucky. It was sunny and practically still, the temp around freezing. As Victoria, from Save the Dunes, exclaimed, it felt like an Autumn day. We carried our gear, leaf blowers, an assortment of shovels and rakes, and a drip torch, to the site in wheelbarrows. John, our local fire chief, hiked in with a couple of other volunteer firefighters to have a look. We cleared the ground of fallen leaves around three woodpiles and set the first of them on fire.

Fire is bewitching. Like its opposite number, water, it is dynamic, vibrant, insinuating, yet robust. It has life without intention. You can no more blame a fire for burning down your house than you can blame water for washing it away. As the fires in our woodpiles grabbed hold, Neal’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. He recalled past controlled burns, the wonder at how fire “behaved.”

With barely a breeze, our fires burned straight up, fast and clean. Each of us, alone or in pairs, stood by and watched as flames turned logs white with searing heat, consuming oxygen in deep orange draughts.

We raked and shoveled the embers. After awhile we sat and, in a kind of communion going back to before what’s known as history, simply watched the fire do its thing. As the last chunks burned, a few of us sat or lay down upon the ground. We told stories about animals in these parts: hawks and bobcats, deer, coyote, owls. Things we’d seen or heard about. There was a wry moment of silence for the Hoosier bear, a hapless stranger who wandered into Michiana from Michigan a few years ago and, despite efforts to relocate him, came back, raiding back porches and bird feeders until someone finished him off.

We waited until the embers turned dark gray. All that remained of the fires were three charred circles. We loaded our tools and wheeled them back through the trees to the trailhead. The next day, when I reached for my cap, I found the aroma of wood smoke in my hand.

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