Ashely Adams :: “Prescribed Burn”

Wildland Fire Use: The management of naturally ignited wildland fires to accomplish specific prestated resource management objectives in predefined geographic areas outlined in Fire Management Plans.


There is a scrub preserve south of Tampa Bay where the grass kisses at your legs with ungentle tongues, growing up golden-brown between the tooth-edged saw palms. Compared to the concrete buildings and exotic trees, the scrubland feels exposed. The naked sky’s brushed by scattered groves of pine, the trees all maintaining a polite distance from each other. Time it right and you can watch the slow drift of the sky into the magentas of sunset along with the silhouettes of whippoorwills sweeping overhead. 

Despite the relative proximity to the city, almost nobody uses the trail. It’s one of the few places I have been able to find in the city that gives me any sense of isolation. No traffic, no emails, no roommates forgetting to take out the trash.

No man tailgating me, laying into the horn because my bumper stickers displeased him.

No man refusing my help on a paper because he doesn’t think I know what climate change is.

No man screaming bitch at me for the crime of not looking at him while we pass on the street.

Yes, only me and the armadillos crashing through the undergrowth, unafraid in their pursuit of all the rewards of the soil. 

Test Fire: A small fire ignited within the planned burn unit to determine the characteristic of the prescribed fire, such as fire behavior, detection performance and control measures.


Before I moved to Florida, I worked at the Hiawatha Visitor Center, nestled against Lake Superior in Michigan. Most of the guests were families, scout groups, or white boys in their early 20s slightly smelling of weed. Occasionally, though, a woman came all by herself, picking up maps and putting them back while waiting for me to finish helping a tourist find the boat tour. I knew what she wanted before she approached me; it’s rare someone chose me over the older men that worked with me. 

The woman leaned over the counter. “Do you hike around here often?”

Of course.

She inclined her head, whispered conspiratorially, “Is it safe?”

I smiled. Told her there was nothing to fear but bug bites and sweat and mud. Safer than the city. A party. A college dorm. The greatest threat is always another person, not nature.

But the woman already knew that, didn’t she?


Brush Fire: A fire burning in vegetation that is predominantly shrubs, brush and scrub growth.


I return to the scrubland again and again. Each time reveals a small new thing—a pond born from a midday downpour and the dragonflies that hover around it, tiny wildflowers dimpling the ground in purples and whites, the terns and gulls specking the sky on their way to nearby retention ponds. 

Then, on one visit, I find swaths of the preserve burned, the sand crusted black with soot.  Around the last few feet of the tree trunks, scorch marks stained the bark. I pause every few feet, snapping pictures of the landscape, careful of the tread marks left by a bulldozer. Someone else had been here and the place had burned for it.


Prescribed Fire: Any fire ignited by management actions under certain, predetermined conditions to meet specific objectives related to hazardous fuels or habitat improvement. A written, approved prescribed fire plan must exist, and NEPA requirements must be met, prior to ignition.


Some ecosystems depend on upheaval to survive. To replicate this, wildlife managers purposefully set sections of the land on fire to replicate these natural disturbances. In college, I once worked on one of these prescribed burns, one member of an unkempt gaggle of undergrad volunteers invited to a local Audubon sanctuary. The crew was excited to have us, handing out portable water packs and face masks. The burn boss, a man with some single-syllable name like Jeff or Mike, was less impressed. He looked each of us over, checking how capable we seemed, how flammable we were. 

The burn boss stopped on me and my thick, shoulder-length hair, “Can’t you put that up?”

I shook my head. Ponytails always gave me a headache. I didn’t even own a hair-tie and the small percentage of our team that were girls didn’t have a spare. The burn boss sighed, motioned to the sweatshirt I was wearing. “I guess if you pull up your hood that will be fine.”

Pulling up my hood, I wondered if the cheap fabric was truly safer than my own hair, but I was happy to do whatever so long as I could stay. All I cared about was staying on this burn, seeing what a field looked like when it was on fire, nursing its heat and flames to its end.


Fuel Reduction: Manipulation, including combustion, or removal of fuels to reduce the likelihood of ignition and/or to lessen potential damage and resistance to control.


Here is how you stay safe: don’t start a burn when the humidity is low; don’t burn on a windy day; wear your hair up; don’t wear your hair up or someone will grab it; wear a mask; don’t go out at dark; don’t be by yourself; hold your keys between your fingers; come up with a plan of attack before arriving at a burn; at a bus stop; in a parking lot; consider the ecosystem requirements; check the weather before leaving.


Underburn: A fire that consumes surface fuels but not trees or shrubs. 


The only time I have ever gotten mad about being catcalled was when I was birdwatching along the Dead River in Marquette, an hour’s drive away from my visitor center job. It was late fall, the ground hard and bare from cold, as if preparing itself for the blanket of snowfall. As I was observing the geese and ducks huddled along the shoreline, a man driving past yelled something about my breasts, which were buried under a winter hunting jacket. He sped away too fast for me to talk back. To ask him if he knew how hard it was to adjust binoculars with wind-nipped fingers or to identify a rare gull out of a flock of thousands? All the time and effort to become a good observer lost in a second to a honk and shout. Why not wait until I was walking to a class or to the mediocre sandwich shop? 

Didn’t he know what landscape he belonged to?


Structure Fire: Fire originating in and burning any part or all of any building, shelter, or other structure.


On the day Christine Blasey Ford testified of the sexual assault she experienced by Brett Kavanaugh, I went hiking at the scrubland. The ground was still scarred from the burn but saplings were already hiding the worst damage under the soft shade of their needles. Palm and yellow-rumped warblers chirped from the bushes, trying to lure my focus to their bounce and cheer. And, God, I just want to watch them and think of nothing else but the way they twitched their tails, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the hearing. Couldn’t let go of the spectacle of it all—a woman forced to recount the worst day of her life, pull it up from the sludge of trauma to be dissected by old white men who couldn’t imagine what hurt felt like. How they would prod for any fault in a narrative that’s edges were softened by decades, not because they cared for the truth, but because they wanted to get all this mess done.

It wasn’t just Ford I thought of either. I thought of all the people, distant and close to me, who watched the shadow of their own assaults in the hearing. A friend, a family member, an actress, an online acquittance, a coworker, another friend.

I’d hoped the openness of the scrubland could soothe me, but the sand and the heat only made my body ache. Still, I plunged on down the path. Better to let the anger crackle in this underbrush than to sit and wait for the end, the smirk and whine of a man who wouldn’t face any consequence. Better to walk through mosquitos and the ugly return of pine hammocks to the land than wait for the inevitable end where nothing changes at all.


Escape Route: A preplanned and understood route firefighters take to move to a safety zone or other low-risk area, such as an already burned area, previously constructed safety area, a meadow that won’t burn, natural rocky area that is large enough to take refuge without being burned. When escape routes deviate from a defined physical path, they should be clearly marked (flagged).


Because of my hair, I was the last one of the prescribed burn volunteers to get equipment. The boys had snapped up the pile of bladder bags, perhaps imagining themselves as heroic firemen maneuvering the fire with arcs of life-saving water. All that was left for me was something that looked like a garden tool made by demons to poke sinners in hell. At the end of a cumbersome wooden handle was a wedge of metal split with a hoe’s edge on one side and thick tines on another. The burn boss nodded and told me the tool was called a McLeod. I couldn’t imagine what use I would be to the effort besides raking up after the smoldering remains of the men, busy work retribution for my styling faults.

Our fire crew wandered across the grassy field, dipping their driptorches down into the grass. The dying foliage of autumn lit up under the stream of gasoline. Some of the other volunteers gasped as the fire sprang up to heights over our heads, the air filled with the scent of dozens of bonfires. The burn boss tapped my elbow and gestured towards the arc of fire pushing out and out towards the trampled perimeter of where the burn should stop, “Do you see that grass on fire? I need you to break up the clumps.”

I wanted to say back that of course I could see the fire and what did he want me to do about it with the McLeod until I saw what he meant. In between the strongest points of the inferno were clumps of grass inelegantly burning. I didn’t understand why those charred lumps mattered, but I was eager to redeem myself from my earlier hair mistake. I hopped through the gaps in the flames and brought the heavy McLeod down, smearing the cinders into the dirt until the grass became flat ash against the Earth. I hopped from hot spot to hot spot, smashing apart the vegetation until my arms strained from hefting the McLeod and the smoke fell thick over the field, hiding everyone else from view. Looking back, I should have been scared. For all I knew, the fire could have surrounded me, cut me off from escape. Yet here was peace, me and the job in this burning world.


Initial Attack: The actions taken by the first resources to arrive at a wildfire to protect lives and property, and prevent further extension of the fire.


When I worked at the visitor center, men would ask me if hiking was safe in the forest as well. They would call me up and ask, “Can I bring my gun with me?”


Wildland Urban Interface: The line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.


People don’t understand why we would want to burn the land, to stop the field from its growth into a forest. They fret about the boys clipped down from the men they might become, molded by feminine hands into something soft and willowy. Isn’t it dangerous to start a fire? Isn’t it possible we’re accusing an innocent man of a crime. 

And here is how I would answer these questions. I would tell them that that stagnant woods is no home for the scrub jay, the grasshopper sparrow. The pines will die with no offspring to replace them in the shade of an old, dying bough. 

Come, let us watch this hillside burn, its smoke pleasant as it stings our lungs, its gray and crimson smell lingering on our clothes months after, as if pleated into the fabric. Press it to your nose to remind yourself what a healthy destruction smells like.


Fire Storm: Violent convection caused by a large continuous area of intense fire. Often characterized by destructively violent surface indrafts, near and beyond the perimeter, and sometimes by tornado-like whirls.


Here is the part where I am supposed to tell you why I am writing this. Tell you about the time a man hurt me that made me feel this way. The time a man followed me around the city for stopping to look at gulls. The man who screamed at me about how he couldn’t have his gun. The man who tried to steal me away at 14 during a concert to “dance”. The man who stood too close to, grinning as I looked at swimsuits in a Wal-Mart. 

The truth is, I’ve been lucky it’s just been that. Maybe, instead, I’m supposed to tell you the story of those who haven’t had my luck. I know more than enough stories to give the needed climax. 

That’s what we call the last stage of succession of a forest—the climax—where all the trees are old, giant, and all stagnates in their shadow. 

This is what I’ll tell you. Someone took a photo of me at the prescribed burn. In the picture, there is nothing but smoke and me, my body obscured by a neon safety vest. My face is equally hidden, by hood and face mask, the only thing visible is a lock of hair and the glint of my glasses. I’ve had some people say I look very scary.

So, let’s imagine all those abusers stumbling through the burn site, smoke so thick you can only see the faint curve of hills. Let’s imagine the fire distant, but still a threatening aurora on the horizon. Let’s imagine a figure emerging, framed by the wilting stalks of grass, body cloaked by gray and protective clothing. Let’s imagine the dreadful thump-thump of something heavy and metal hitting the ground, coming closer.

Let’s imagine that they will know a woman’s fear, even if it’s just for a moment.


Mop-up: To make a fire safe or reduce residual smoke after the fire has been controlled by extinguishing or removing burning material along or near the control line, felling snags, or moving logs so they won’t roll downhill.


The obvious signs of fire have disappeared from the scrubland when I hike there. The plants have reclaimed every bare inch. The dirt is smooth after months of Florida storms, the imprints of truck tires and boots gone. But if you get down close to the Earth, you can find a small plant with spindly stems. Coated with silver wooly hairs, the plant looks cold, frosted, even in the Florida heat. On the top is a rosette of yellow flowers the size of a thumb.

This is the Florida golden aster, a rare plant that is endemic in the Tampa Bay area. It grows nowhere else in the world. For decades the population had been in decline due to habitat destruction. Scrubland, viewed as useless and ugly, was destroyed to build up housing developments, condos, and shopping centers. Without this scrubland, the Florida golden aster clung to life on the margins of land development, a being that could do no more than survive under beings more powerful than it. 

But, sometimes, we listen to what nature tells us, usually when she gets sick of our shit and sinks our homes into a limestone grave. Now, there are preserves like this one I hike in where we promise to do better. To protect and nurture the most vulnerable. It’s not close enough; life can only flourish so far in isolated pockets of safety.

Still, I bend down, watch the shiny-winged insects cling to the aster’s petals, and think a better future is possible. One where we listen to those who have suffered. One where we let the fires burn. 

Ashely Adams is a queer swamp-adjacent writer and okay birder. Ask her about the weather.