After weeks of scorching weather, cooler temperatures are a welcome sign to wildlife biologist Shan Cammack of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. When fall arrives, Cammack knows it is only a matter of time before she laces up her fire boots and buttons up the Nomex.
And she’s not alone. All over Georgia others have been pulling out smoke-stained clothing and weighted vests, pounding the pavement to stay in shape in anticipation of attending an annual refresher and passing a work capacity test known as the pack test. This class held around the state ensures that those who work to conserve our natural resources through prescribed fire do so safely and efficiently.
Cammack, along with fellow wildlife biologist Nikki Castleberry, coordinate the fire program for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section and the Parks & Historic Sites Division. Both Cammack and Castleberry serve as fire safety officers, working to keep staff up on training and equipment.
Since 2003, more than 200 people have completed the basic wildland fire training program offered by the Nongame Conservation Section through an annual interagency burn team effort. In the beginning, the participants, most of them volunteers, were referred to as ecoburners, a name that stuck and is used fondly among team members. The fall refresher is an opportunity for those who have been trained to brush up on their skills, learn about new techniques and receive revised safety regulations. They also must pass a few key tests required to remain certified at the national level. These tests include fire shelter deployment and the infamous pack test, which can include covering up to four miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack.
“Annual refreshers can be challenging,” Cammack said. “We have to take the required information given at the national level and put it into a prescribed fire context. Most of the national stuff is directed at wildfire, while our people focus on prescribed fire.”
From humble beginnings, the Nongame Conservation Section fire program has grown from those first ecoburners to include a formal partnership with The Nature Conservancy in 2004 followed by the hiring of shared AmeriCorps crews. Next came a shared seasonal burn crew, and finally seasonal burn crews for each agency, available to help all partners of the interagency burn team, or IBT. The latest partner to come on board is the U.S Forest Service. This partnership has allowed for significant growth in the ecological conservation of lands around the state with the number of acres burned by the Nongame Conservation Section jumping from 2,635 in 2003 to 25,662 in 2010.
All told, of the 175,205 burnable acres of DNR-managed lands in Georgia, 32,845 acres or 19 percent were burned in 2010. The DNR hopes to increase that total, burning roughly a third of the burnable acres the agency manages each year.
Those numbers mean good news for rare species and habitat restoration. Prescribed fire is recognized by Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan as one of the primary tools for conservation and restoration of managed lands in the state. The plan is a comprehensive strategy guiding DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.
Whether you are visiting a state park, hunting on a wildlife management area or enjoying the solitude of one of Georgia’s natural areas, you can usually see firsthand the benefits of the prescribed fire program. Longleaf pine, bobwhite quail, pitcherplants, gopher tortoises and red cockaded woodpeckers are only a few of the many species benefiting from the use of fire around the state.
As the date for the last annual refresher nears, the ecoburners grow more excited; ready for another year of putting fire on the ground, in the name of conservation.
This program is an example of how buying a nongame license plate or donating to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund through the state income tax checkoff and other ways supports wildlife conservation. Contributions benefit the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats in the state.
The license plates – featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird – are available for a $35 specialty plate fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags). Specialty plates include an annual renewal fee.
For the Give Wildlife a Chance checkoff, fill in an amount more than $1 on line 27 of the long state income tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500EZ). Contributions can be deducted from refunds or added to payments.
Georgians can also donate online at www.georgiawildlife.com. Click “Donate the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund” and follow directions. The process is secure. Donations are tax-deductible.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).