Playing with fire

Shh, don?t tell anyone, but I cheated once. I started a campfire with starter fluid.

My daughters and I had rented a cabin and were planning on roasting hot dogs over the fire. I became a bit defensive when they voiced their doubts over my ability to actually get a fire going. So when the fire flared and died out twice, I became a bit desperate.

After making sure the girls weren?t watching, I sprayed on some starter fluid. Whoosh, there it went. With some satisfaction, and a mere twinge of guilt, I was Mom the Provider once again.

Campfires always seemed to me to be a requirement of camping out, in any of the various forms (tent, camper, cabin). Perhaps the act of camping reaches back to a more sustenance way of life. Gathering around the fire would be an essential part of that lifestyle. After all, without central heating, historically, fire would mean the difference between life and freezing to death.

As a child, we tent camped and Dad always had a fire going. He would sit next to it for what seemed like hours to my child-mind, staring into the flames or poking it with a stick.

My fascination never got past my comfort level; I remember hating the unbalanced feeling of fire, cold on my back and scorched in front. I don?t think it?s merely an age thing as I have met plenty of kids, unlike me, absolutely fascinated by fire. And I think only part of it is the forbidden aspect. When I teach survival, the kids have to start their own fires and they love it. Of course, they also learn it is not as easy as they think.

Given the popularity of our night prairie burns, I would say plenty of adults remain fascinated as well. I can?t blame them, somewhere along the line, I found the same thing within myself. As long as I am not having to corral kids or actually keep an eye on the fire to make sure it stays contained, watching a fire can be quite relaxing and mesmerizing.

During my early years here, when I had time to help with our burns, I enjoyed the time, after the fire was safely contained, watching the flames zip through. The part earlier, keeping it contained, was a bit too adrenaline-rushed and smoke-filled for me. Plus it was work.

Despite our fascination, we are taught from a very early age about the dangers of fire and playing with matches (I tell my survival chaperones, it?s amazing that you give fifth graders permission to start fires and their fires sputter and die, but a 3-year-old and one match will burn a house down). In addition, for personal safety and property protection, we have, for the longest time, practiced wildfire suppression.

Yet fire, like floods and wind, is part of the landscape. Floods (annual ones, not catastrophic) bring nutrient-rich soil onto flood plains and in their proper, natural place, provide habitat for many animals. Fire, also, helps clean up, removing dead debris out of the way, opening up nest sites, eliminating invasive plants, as well as many other benefits.

Since fire no longer happens naturally or safely, we need to give it a boost. Thus, every spring, our staff perform controlled burns on our properties that need them.

And for those of you also fascinated with fire, we do a public night burn (because fire is much more spectacular to watch in the dark). On Friday, April 13, we will be burning the south prairie, next to the conservation center, at Marr Park. For those of you interested in the mechanics, the reasons, and the history, we?ll have a program inside the center at 7:30 p.m. The burn will start at 8:00 p.m.

And yes, we will be using gas to light it.