I have some great news for any frustrated high schoolers out there who are tired of the bell-to-bell boredom of sitting in a classroom reading lifeless textbooks. College isn’t just school away from home; it’s school beyond the classroom, in the real world! Granted, college still has plenty of time set aside for the lecture hall and the study lounge, but besides the classwork there are some awesome opportunities and experiences that simply put textbooks and homework assignments to shame.
This past Sunday I was afforded the opportunity to partake in one of these “beyond the classroom” activities. As part of the Burn Crew (or Burn “squad” if you please), I got to join Dr. Baack, Dr. Larsen, and Dr. McNicoll, along with several other Bio students (including my awesome friend Lauren Knuckey who deserves a shout-out and for everyone reading this to stalk her Facebook page for embarrassing photos and like them) on a prescribed burn of a portion Hickory Ridge Woods.
Some of you may be wondering why anyone would intentionally set fire to a natural area, particularly one so close to many valuable assets, including Bakers Village (off-campus housing for upperclassmen) and the famous Ashmore-Jewell Barn. For the past 150 years or so, humans have tried to prevent any and all wildfires because we didn’t understand that fires are natural and essential disturbances that help maintain healthy ecosystems. For areas in Iowa like Hickory Ridge Woods, prescribed burns keep shade-tolerant trees, such as sugar maples, ironwoods, and elms in check while allowing oaks, which prefer sunny and airy forest spaces, to prosper. Fires also keep the flammable forest materials from building up and causing more massive and destructive wildfires later on. I apologize for the ecology lesson, but to understand the beauty of prescribed fires, it’s really important to understand the “why” behind the whole process.
Now for the fun stuff! As part of the Burn squad, I donned an incredibly fashionable yellow firefighter suit and got to walk around with a tool called a “flapper” and stamp out any flames that tried to flee and set fires to areas we did not want to burn. Other group members carried around water-packs and Dr. Baack walked around with a diesel “torch” of sorts and set fire to the forest. About an hour into the burn, Dr. Baack quite literally passed the torch on to me, so I got to go around and set fire to the forest as well. At one point I set fire to a huge pile of European Buckthorn and watched with great satisfaction as the invasive plant species was consumed by the mighty flames.
Besides smelling strongly of campfire for the next couple hours, being part of the Burn Crew was an awesome experience and helped remind me about one of the main reasons I wanted to go to college: for those cool, textbook-less real-world experiences. Here's a link to a video of a burn Luther did a couple years ago (It may not seem exciting on video, but for an ecology enthusiast (and/or pyromaniac) like myself, it's an awesome experience!