The flames started small Monday morning at one end of 18 acres of grasslands along Route 20 in West Hartland: just a thin flickering line of red as firefighters carefully ignited the “controlled burn” on a portion of Tunxis State Forest.
Teams of more than a dozen yellow-coated and helmeted men and women worked the perimeter of the big field, starting and monitoring the fires that rapidly gained intensity. Within minutes, the whole northern section was aflame, sending dense white and gray smoke clouds billowing into the clear April air.
Firefighters carrying backpacks filled with water patrolled the fire zone, snuffing out any patches that threatened to reach closer to the road or the surrounding woods. A West Hartland Fire Department tanker truck and town firefighters were also standing by.
“Don’t waste any water,” one of the crew chiefs called out as the flames soared, some spiraling 15 to 20 feet above the tops of the grass. “We’ve got a ways to go.”
“We’ve been trying to do this all month,” Helene Hochholzer, forest protection supervisor for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said as she watched from the roadside. “The weather has to cooperate.”
Monday turned out to be just about perfect in the hills west of Barkhamsted Reservoir: 58 degrees Fahrenheit, light winds well below 12 miles per hour, humidity in the acceptable range, the grasses dried out after last week’s torrential storms.
Hochholzer said another week or two might have been too late. By then, the fields would have started to turn green and the birds would have started to return to build their nests throughout those 18 acres.
The purpose of the burn was to save and improve the grassy fields for native species, like those that are considered threatened or of “special concern.” After the fire, the grasses will swiftly grow back, but most of the woody stems of young trees that had begun to invade the area would not.
David Irvine, the DEEP forester in charge of Monday’s operation, said his agency had been hoping to conduct such a controlled “maintenance burn” on those 18 acres for 13 years.
“There’s a lot of planning involved in this,” Irvine said as his crews and motorized equipment gathered for a preignition briefing.
“It’s going to be pretty hot,” Irvine told them. “The flames are going to average about 12 feet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see 30-foot flames.”
Throughout the briefing, Irvine and other experienced crew leaders repeatedly issued safety warnings. “You should always have an escape route in mind,” Irvine said.
“Keep one foot on the black,” he added, referring to staying on the portion of the field that had already been burned off.
As the fires grew, Irvine walked up and down the side of the big field, checking with crew leaders and studying the fire. A stocky man with a quick smile when he wasn’t giving out serious safety warnings, Irvine seemed to be in constant motion as the flames consumed the high, dry grasses.
Hochholzer said DEEP workers had been planting lots of native grasses in those fields in recent years and using herbicides in an attempt to keep out the brush and young woody tree stems that were spreading into the fields.
Monday’s burn was actually taking a page out of the traditional practices of Native Americans, who regularly started fires to keep grasslands clear and burn off the forest undergrowth.
“Native Americans used to do this to maintain hunting areas,” Hochholzer explained.
Watching the whole operation carefully from across the street were Carol Blouin and her neighbors.
Blouin is the owner of a 1790s farmhouse and land on the far side of the country highway. She insisted she wasn’t at all nervous about the controlled burn.
“I’m a master wildlife conservationist,” Blouin explained, saying she’s done a lot of volunteer work with DEEP foresters. She said she has lots of faith in their expertise and safety precautions. Blouin added that she has tried to improve the grassland habitat on her own land and now has birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks nesting there.
Open grassland areas are becoming more and more rare in Connecticut, lost to development or the encroaching woodlands. Loss of such open fields, filled with tall native grasses, means opportunities to reproduce for ground-nesting native birds are also diminishing, state wildlife experts say.
The DEEP schedules controlled burns on state properties every year. In 2018, forestry officials are hoping to conduct five separate burns — including Monday’s — on about 78 acres of state land.
Hochholzer said the controlled burns also serve as invaluable training for DEEP personnel in how to control and combat wildfires.
DEEP experts train about 130 state workers — including 80 full-time DEEP staff and 50 seasonal workers — in “wildland fire-fighting” techniques, Hochholzer said. Working on controlled burns like the one in West Hartland helps those state employees keep up their qualification requirements to be designated wildland firefighters.