Kevin Taylor: Fighting and lighting fires
By Mark Robinson
The Monongahela National Forest stretches for many miles north of Greenbrier County, its northernmost point falling above Elkins. The National Forest comprises 921,000 acres of land, within a circumference line that includes 1.7 million acres.
Where forests do their thing, fire is a consideration. The people who care for the National Forest are interested in preventing forest fires, obviously. Oddly enough, they are interested in setting fires, too. Fire is a way to impact the growth and development of all things that grow in the forest.
Kevin Taylor lives in White Sulphur Springs. Born in Indiana, he lived there until the third grade, when his family moved to Bowling Green, KY.
Finishing high school, he served seven years in the U.S. Navy, at which point he signed up for classes at Western Kentucky University, then transferred to the University of Kentucky to earn a degree in forestry.
After graduating, Taylor landed a job with U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico. For about three years he had responsibilities concerned with timber, but that also meant a baptism into firefighting. Says Taylor, “There’s so much fire there, it’s a different environment. When it’s dry, everybody works on fire. That’s how I started in the fire side of things.”
Living in a small Mew Mexico town called Cuba, Taylor learned how to deal with the large fires that ravage the western lands. The highly publicized Cerro Grande fire in May of 2000 burned about 48,000 acres, including the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. That provided a wake-up call to Congress, which decided to invest more in firefighting in the western states. The study of fires and the use of skilled frontline firefighters became new priorities. Taylor was learning more about how fires behave, and learning more about how to put them out.
Taylor says, “Fighting fire for the forest service, it seems a lot more glamorous when you watch it on the news, with airplanes and people battling flames. In reality, it’s not that exciting. Here in the east, fires tend to burn low and slow. The work of controlling them is a lot of hoeing and digging and moving stuff.
“We’re not really in danger when we’re fighting a fire. We try to think of things ahead of time, so when things happen, we’re ready for it. It’s not very often that things seem out of control,” he said.
“One time in Georgia, we were fighting a fire with the wind changing directions constantly. We knew it was going to be doing that ahead of time. Well, the fire blew up and they pulled us off the line. An hour later, they said, ‘Okay, go back in.’ We’re on the way in, and they say, ‘Let’s pull back out.’ An hour later, they’re sending us back in again. ‘No, let’s pull out.’ After that, I said, I don’t think I’m going back in today. If they can’t make their minds up, I’ll make mine up.”
“We have confidence in our leaders. I’ve worked from being on the ground to being in the leadership. Sometimes, when you’re on the ground, you don’t understand how much the leaders really care about what’s going on, and how safe you are. We try to make sure our people are safe. There’s not one thing out there that is worth our people dying over. Every year, we have people die somewhere in the country, but there’s still nothing out there worth dying for.
It’s better to keep pulling back, and make your people aggravated, than to let the people on the ground be in danger,” Taylor said.
Taylor moved to Bartow, WV, in Pocahontas County, in 2003. His job description made him a timber manager, focusing on how trees and plant life were growing in the national forest, and figuring out how to see better results.
Taylor saw advantages to using fire in West Virginia. “I started pushing for more fire here. We have forests that have oak and hickory in them, and those are the trees we want to have a lot of. I had some experience with fire, with the bad things fire can do and the good things fire can do. I wanted to use fire as a tool to allow our forests to do better.
“Fire can help some species, like blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, and mountain laurel. There are some definite benefits from fire that you can’t get from just harvesting timber, or from pesticides. So, we use fire a lot. The fire program here was small, and now it’s bigger.”
One kind of burn is a seed prep burn. This is a fire designed to burn off the leaf litter that is on the ground, so when the acorns fall, they can root down into the soil and not just into the leaf cover. The leaf litter will often dry up in late summer, killing the acorns.
Oaks don’t like shady conditions, so a burn that takes out the lower vegetation and shorter trees is often effective in providing more sunlight. If a fire can clear out a lot of the maples, that lets more sunlight filter through to the forest floor.
Removal of the largest trees can be done by timbering, but can also be accomplished by burning at the right time of year, and burning hot. Fires in West Virginia seldom climb up into treetops, except occasionally with pine trees. Large hardwood trees can be killed by burning hot on the ground, which kills the cambium layer under the bark at the base of the tree, causing it to die.
“In a controlled burn,” said Taylor, “we’re looking at a mortality rate of maybe 10 percent of the over story. So, if you’re burning a thousand acres, that’s 100 acres of big trees.Sometimes that can be concentrated in spots, which might look bad, but it grows back.
“We have a burn plan. We look at existing things we can use as barriers. Are there streams or roads or trails we can use to stop the fire? Then we see if we can connect enough of those dots, to block off a chunk of ground to burn. We’ll have to walk that chunk of ground to be sure it will work.”
“If it jumps a line, we have enough people out there to continue with the burn, and also to catch whatever spot has crossed the line. Most of the time, in our forests we have from 20 to 40 people working on a fire. They are usually national forest employees. We have people come from other forests, from the George Washington Jefferson Forest, right across the Virginia border, people from the Wayne National Forest in Ohio. Sometimes we use the Job Corps Center kids in Harpers Ferry. We use it as a training for them, before we take them out west to fight fires.
“I remember a few years ago, we burned the first day of turkey season. We actually had the Wild Turkey Federation come out and do some public contact information, because some hunters were upset. The Turkey Federation told people that the burn would be a help to future turkey hunting.
“Sometimes you can see some animals moving because of fire, but it’s not a big deal in front of our fires. Animals can cross a fire line and go back into the burn area. That’s actually the safest place to be, because it can’t burn. It’s not like out west, where the flames are huge, and the animals have to run in order to survive. I’ve seen rabbits and squirrels and deer run over the fire and back into the black. Our flame lengths tend to be anywhere from two inches to two feet. You can generally get through it. As quick as animals are, they can move through and be perfectly safe. That’s where we go if we need to, where the fuel is already consumed.”
“We look at our burn plans, we look at how much smoke we produce, how much fuel we consume, we look at structures in the area. We look at Anthony Center, nursing homes, airports, make sure we’re not putting anyone at risk with smoke. We don’t want smoke in towns, don’t want it on the interstate.”
“Two years ago we had a smoke hole fire, about the largest fire we’ve had in the Monongahela in about 50 years. It started on its own. Not lightning, it was classified as human caused. Never established who did what. It was started on a dry day up near Petersburg. Burned nearly 1,600 acres, snowed the second day of the fire. You would think that would help, but the leaves were so deep that the fire could burn the leaves under the fire, melt the snow, and keep burning. It wasn’t burning real fast, but once it gets going up a hill, and you don’t have a lot of people, it gets going. It was burning up the hill at night, and the weather was changing every day to make things more difficult. You’d think it will stop here, and the next day it would be way past that. You keep trying to figure out how to stop it. I got called Nov. 10, and I got home after the fire was over about a month later. We got a line around it, but it also just burned itself out. The weather put it out before it got to our line.
“It got into some pitch pine. We had some runs that got into the upper story, burned up some of those pine patches and killed trees. It was pretty impressive to see those pine trees burning in the night. It was a great opportunity to train people.”