A wildfire struck the Shawnee National Forest late last month.
The total damage? About a tenth of an acre.
“We are not going to see a 1,000-acre fire,” said Scott Crist, a fire expert at Shawnee.
The forest, in Southern Illinois, sees about 20 to 30 fires a year, though, oddly enough, most occur outside of the normal summertime fire season that engulfs western states, Crist said.
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Every year, more than 7 million acres of forest burn in the United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In a 2015 report from the agency, climate change has expanded the fire season an average of 78 days since 1970. Fire now accounts for more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, compared to 16 percent in 1995.
At Shawnee, however, environmental factors make it harder for fires to break out, even compared to other forests in the region, Crist said. For example, the thick soil in the 289,000-acre Shawnee keeps more moisture on the ground, dampening leaves and other debris that fuel fires. But, travel 80 miles west to the Mark Twain National Forest where the soil is thinner and dries out more quickly, and the threat of fire increases.
The fire season at Shawnee is in the wintertime, when trees dry out, but summertime fires can be more deadly, Crist said. In warmer temperatures, when the trees undergo photosynthesis, they contain more water that can steam inside and do heavy damage.
Shawnee trees have thick bark, which offers good protection, but the forest is not without record-setting burns. The largest wildfire there spread across 10,000 acres in the Oakwood Bottoms area of Jackson County in 1952. Today, smaller fires, like one that took a couple hundred acres in Saline County in 2016, are also not unheard of. In 2010, investigators with the Forest Service, tracking char patterns on trees that burned uphill, suspected a 400-acre fire was started by humans.
To keep fires under control, Shawnee National Forest maintains two pickup-style fire engines, a full-time bulldozing crew during fire season, and a team of about 10 permanent and 10 temporary firefighters, Crist said. Crews undergo three weeks of training a year, and the permanent firefighters get specialized training throughout the year.
“Our personnel have pretty high levels of experience” Crist said. “We’re pretty fortunate to have what we have.”
There’s just a lot of moving parts (in large crews)
Matthew Brickner, a firefighter with the Shawnee National Forest, on large fire crews in the West
Several members also help with fires in other states, including Matthew Brickner, who started working at the forest two years ago.
“I fell into it,” the Iowa native said.
Brickner, who went to college for forestry studies, originally worked on maintaining hiking trails, but then he tried his hand at fighting fires in the early 2000s and got hooked.
At the Shawnee National Forest, he spends a lot of time on controlled burns, which require large sums of preparation and monitoring. Large fires, though, can last the entire season, Brickner said. There’s no stopping them; instead, the goal is to keep them contained, as fire crews prevent it from darting out to new locales.
Camps full of firefighters and support crews spring up at large fires with satellite camps popping up nearby.
“There’s just a lot of moving parts,” Brickner said. This year, Brickner, an engine crew assistant, hasn’t strayed often from Illinois, but he plans to join a crew for the rest of the summer soon.
On a normal day at a fire he was at a few years ago, he would wake up at 5:30 a.m., go to a meeting with his crew boss, ready his equipment, and by 7:30 or 8 a.m., head out to the line.
At one time, Brickner also used to be on an intensive “hot shot” team, which often cycle in and out of difficult fires from May to October with little break. But, Brickner said, the strenuous assignments can put pressure on personal relationships.
Big fires can sometimes keep Brickner out for 16 hours a day for two or three weeks at a time.
Still, it’s not all bad.
“You definitely make some money then,” he said.
At Shawnee, though, Brickner has more manageable hours, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. “It’s still hard work … but it’s not as gung-ho as it was,” he said.
That may change, however.
Before 2003, there were only one or two full-time firefighters at Shawnee, Crist said, and 10 years ago, Shawnee was one of the only forests with a full-time crew in the Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, which includes New England.
But as the fire season in the West keeps stretching, the need for firefighters will only get longer.