WOMBAT

Fire Engineering Equipment Operator Brian Stearns poses with a wombat at a command center in Swifts Creek, Australia. Wildland firefighters camped out near the command center.

OSCODA – Oscoda resident Brian Stearns, fire engineering equipment operator for the Huron Manistee National Forest, traveled to Australia as the only Michigan firefighter to assist with the thousands of wildfires spreading across the continent.

According to Stearns, he’s been fighting wildland fires since 1997.  Around that time he was taking classes at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) and fighting wildland fires in Mio during the summer. In 2000 he graduated from LSSU with a degree in parks and recreation management. In 2001, he was offered a job in Oscoda and has been working there ever since.

For many who look back on their careers today, like Stearns, he didn’t know he always wanted to fight wildland fires. Actually, he said, he had plans of going into chemical engineering and later realized that he didn’t want to be inside all the time.

As the fire engineering equipment operator Stearns said he primarily operates the bulldozer and works with fuels through prescribed burning. Prescribed burning is when members of the United States Forest Service (USFS) go out into the forest and purposely burn specific square miles to lessen the fuels in the environment and preserve the ecology.

“We have really sandy soils and so all these plants, flora and fauna everything here that has developed since the glaciers have essentially retreated. There has been frequent fire on this landscape and because it’s sandy the water doesn’t stay there, so these they’re called pyrofights is the technical term, but most of the plant species and animals are threatened and endangered,” said Stearns.

In July through September, Stearns works on the Great Lakes Wildland Fire module and has been doing so since 2007.

“These modules were originally designed to allow fire to burn on the landscape to meet resource objectives,” said Stearns. “The idea was in the 90s if you get a natural start say with lightning usually in western states in areas where its appropriate not close to homes or anything and if the conditions it wasn’t too droughty, the conditions were right you could allow this fire to move on the landscape and meet those same objectives you’d be with a prescribed burn,” said Stearns.

Essentially Stearns said that a prescribed burn is designed to diminish the intensity of a fire if that particular part of landscape catches fire and to restore ecological benefits for the plans and animals in the area.

According to Stearns who worked in Australia for over a month, the wildland fires that began were due to a two and a half to three year drought. In this case, prescribed burning has been done in Australia, according to Stearns; however, it’s a much more difficult task to accomplish.

“Australia does do prescribed burning, but I don’t think it’s at the level, just me having conversations with my peers over there they indicated that there was potential to do more than what they’re able to do now,” said Stearns.

Although the news of the wildland fires didn’t become national news until mid-December, Stearns said the fires actually started getting really bad in October due to an anomaly called pyrocumulonimbus clouds.

“Essentially there’s so much energy generated from that fire that it makes a thunderstorm and now you’ve got lightning starting more fire, so it really it creates a really devastating kind of effect where its just compounding on itself,” said Stearns.

In addition to the lightning even more fires were being started by a eucalyptus plant which has bark that curls up into long ribbons.

“Heat rises and it’s called convective currents and that heat rises and can pull those big ribbons of bark so they catch fire and they will just loft for miles because its a straw for some reason the wind can’t extinguish that burning material inside, so it essentially now you have a new fire starting miles from fighting fire here and you wouldn’t know it because it’s so far away,” said Stearns.

Upon arrival he said there had already been 12 million acres of land that had been burned. Stearns received the call to depart on Dec. 28 and returned on Jan. 29. While he was there, Stearns said he worked with a crew of five men to control fire, operate equipment, plan and map the future work they were going to do among other things. He said about 15 to 20 days were spent fighting fires and the five days were spent planning and mapping and fulfilling other responsibilities.

He said he flew into Brisbane and spent less then a day there and was later flown to Melbourne to handle fires in a small town called Omeo around the Alpine National Forest.

“We did experience in the Alpine National Park while I was there they had just done a prescribed burn last year and we were using that as a control feature for the wildfire that was coming in and there again it demonstrated the fact that there wasn’t as much spotting and it was resistant to burning because it was just freshly burned, so that was an example of their prescribed burn had helped out at least one location along the Alpine National Park.”

Additionally, the crew set up tents near a command center in Swifts Creek and lived out there for a month. Stearns also said while he was there Australia received two bouts of rain. One for 24 hours straight and the other for six to eight hours straight.

With the little bit of rain received Stearns said the fires are much more under control.