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Firefighters set their own blaze

Approximately 74 acres of the Wayne National Forest were set ablaze yesterday, not by arsonists or a careless campsite, but by two-dozen Forest Service employees.

The "prescribed burn" was initiated to deal with excess fuel concentrations in the form of dry foliage, but mainly to help out a single plant: the blue scorpion-weed.

The conditions for a prescribed burn such as the one in the Handley Branch area of Symmes Township yesterday are very specific. A strong wind or a directional change, a smattering of rain or even the cessation of wind can mean a cancellation.

This is one of the times of the year when burning is prescribed, in fact, there's another session lined up for today. But according to Wayne National Forest Ironton District Ranger Gloria Chrismer, by the middle of next month the burning season will have run its course.

"We won't be during any burning after April 15, because that's when a lot of animals are having their babies," Chrismer said. "And we try to stay out of the burning business during that time."

WNF assistant Ironton district ranger John Brown admitted that it may seem unusual for his people to be the ones starting fires, but it's typical of the relationship they must keep with fire, which can be so dangerous to the forest, but is necessary for its renewal.

"It's a love/hate relationship," Brown said. "It is, but also, I'm just kind of in awe of it, of the power. Look out there, all that black that you see where they just burnt? Come back in a few months, it'll be so green you wouldn't believe it."

No couch potatoes

Though the procedure was prescribed, planned and undertaken with the utmost care, any time that fire is involved, there's the opportunity for danger. To help prevent the fire from spreading to private land, several precautions were taken, including drawing a narrow, water-filled ditch around the area to be burned, known as a fire line.

At all times during the burn, three fire engines were present to deal with any flare-ups. And, of course, the fire was being tended to by professionals, who Chrismer said must undergo rigorous training in order to battle blazes.

"Those people are in top physical condition," Chrismer said. "There are no couch potatoes in that group. It's dangerous work, here it's flat, but if they get called up to fight fires out west, that's mountainous terrain, that can be very strenuous."

As if to prove Chrismer's point, at that moment, a lick of flame leaps from the prescribed area to a clump of trees across the road. Within moments, it is swarmed by USDA Forest Service employees, and is quickly extinguished. Seconds after the battle, it's an odd sight to see the men and women trudge back to their drip torches and begin to spill the same substance they had just risked their lives to contain.

Of bats and scorpions

Perhaps the most striking thing about Thursday display in Symmes Township is that, for the most part, it was done solely to help protect an endangered plant variety that has no known practical uses.

When the practicality of the operation is challenged, Chrismer becomes not angry, but thoughtful. After a short pause, she illustrates the value of the plant through the story of a flying rodent.

Chrismer said that she often thinks of the vampire bat in these situations. Researchers studying the natural anti-coagulant properties of the bat's saliva were able to reverse engineer a method of creating a drug to help reduce clotting in stroke victims.

Though she knows of no similar application for the blue scorpion-weed, Chrismer said that the story illustrates the importance of the Forest Service's charge to protect all plant and animal life, no matter how outwardly fruitless they may seem.

"If that bat was endangered, and we let it go extinct then it might be that much harder to come up with that drug that will save lives," Chrismer said.

"Now I don't know what the blue scorpion-weed is good for, but it's a case where your kids and your grandkids will be able to have these things at their disposal, and one of them may study one of these plants and come up with a great cure for something someday."