Texas Conservation Corps at the Bastrop Wildfire Academy

The Firefighter Training & Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (S130/190) course conducted by the Capital Area Interagency Wildfire & Incident Management Academy was an extremely rewarding experience. Myself along with 9 other members of the Texas Conservation Corps were provided the opportunity to learn about the expanding world of wildland firefighting. Our instructors- Larry Weaver, Willie Mcinnes and Mark Elliot—are experienced professionals who used hands-on experiences to teach us.  During the first few days, we learned about the most important factors of predicting fire behavior and how conditions on a fire can change from minute to minute and hour to hour. Even though there were a lot of technical aspects of fire behavior analysis our instructors taught us practical skills, such as using a sling psychrometer to measure relative humidity, and how Relative Humidity affects the fire’s fuel and burn behavior.  Each day built on the previous day’s knowledge and we were challenged to think critically about how fire behavior adapts, not only with weather conditions, but also due to the terrain. Depending on where a fire starts, we learned about how natural geographic features, such as box canyons, saddle backs and other terrain elements can accelerate the fire’s spread and intensity. Our instructor’s taught us fire vocabulary but also to use natural barriers within an environment (such as roads, waterways, and rocky areas) as anchor points to fight fire. I can hear our instructors now: “work smarter not harder!”

When we transitioned to the fire fighting portion of our course (S190) we simulated a fire camp and were able to participate in the construction of a fire line and a prescribed burn. You know the saying, “you don’t fight fire with fire?” Well, in wildland fire fighting this just isn’t true. In the classroom we learned that fire creates its own weather conditions, but in the field we were able to see how setting a fire within the constructed fireline can use the convective properties of fire—drawing it to itself—and how this actually extinguishes the fire. The fireline construction, fuel reduction and “mop up” were the most exciting aspects of the course. In our Nomex suites and full protective gear we constructed a fire line using the one-lick method. Each person, wielding a different tool, scratched out a small portion of the fire line until the line is down to mineral soil. Working with my fellow classmates, I could sense the camaraderie that develops on a fire crew. As we walked, each one of us pointed to widow makers and stump holes, preventing the crew from slowing down and ensuring each member’s safety. Once the fireline was complete, the instructors allowed me to light a fusee to begin the fire. Once the fire was going we could observe fire behavior and use the tactics learned in the classroom to extinguish the fire by drawing it to itself and eliminating unburnt fuel. The S130/S190 course was an exciting and extremely engaging experience with which to end my year.

LaJuan D. Tucker, SLA Crew Leader 

Texas Conservation Corps Completes Work on Emma Long

“One man’s unsustainable corrosion is another man’s righteous gnar.”

-from an online comment expressing the delicate balance and frustration involved when incorporating erosion control and environmental protection into a well-established and well-loved trail system. 

 

Emma Long Metropolitan Park is one of the largest parks in Austin, TX and it has, perhaps, the only motorcycle trail in the whole city.  In fact, its one of only a few motorized trails on public land in the entire state.  There are 9 miles of trail winding through juniper and oak scrub forest, allowing motorcyclists and mountain bike riders to test their skills on some pretty intense, but somehow still serene, terrain.  It’s full of steep hills and sudden drops down rocky terraces, sharp corners and low hanging trees, punctuated by flowing tracts of even tread under a dense, green canopy. All of it perfect for doing tricks on motorbikes: in short, it’s a motorcycle paradise.

We, the Service Learning Academy Green and Yellow crews, had the opportunity to spend a month there doing rock-work from late January to March 1st. The short time span we were given to complete the project was due to the presence of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, an endangered species of song bird residing in Central Texas, beginning its nesting season. The Migratory Bird and Endangered Species Acts stipulate that their nesting areas cannot be disturbed during the season; though, I often wondered how disturbing our crews would have been compared to the noise made by a motorbike!

We were given 29 sites scattered throughout the trail system that needed work done to prevent erosion and fix other kinds of damage, and ended up completing 27 of them in the very short amount of time available to us. Most of the work consisted of armoring the sudden drops along the trail, which means that we laid large, flat rocks into the ground as if we were placing tiles in a floor.  We also made rock ramps (the first time I’ve ever built with rock that way!) to allow the non-expert riders to get through, and made step and wall-like structures to check the erosion that was occuring on the trail.

Our work at Emma Long was unusual for us in the fact that we were exclusively building for bikes (motorcycles and mountain bikes), as opposed to hikers, horseback riders, etc. By far, they were the most involved group of trail users I’ve ever encountered. Many of them get together often for weekend trail repair workdays and some offered regular friendly and constructive comments.  Unfortunately, not all of our users were happy with the prospect of the city hiring us to work on their park.  Some days angry trail users would ride through and insult our work … but then, as if to demonstrate the duality, they’d be followed not five minutes later by someone who was thrilled with the quality of what we were doing.  The subtitle of this post itself comes from an online debate on the methods and goals of the work done at Emma Long.  The coveted “gnar” factor sought by mountain bikers and motorized users can push a trail to the edge of a hillside or on climbs up through a tight-walled creek bottom, both fairly unsustainable routes.  The challenge of the the trail builder and designer is to keep the “gnar” alive while building a sustainable trail tread that will stand the test of time and nature.  And that’s always going to be a exciting challenge at Emma Long or anywhere else.    We’re proud of the hundreds of hours our team put in at Emma Long and hope that time will show the value of those techniques.

Charles Edmonson, Crew Leader

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