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Jonathan Bailey: Burn Boss

This fall has proven to be another busy season for prescribed fire in both New Hampshire and Maine. We caught up with our NH/Southern Maine Stewardship Specialist, Jon Bailey, who recently became a certified Burn Boss. But what does that even mean?

Let’s start with the basics. Jon, who are you? Where are you from? What’s your story? How on earth did you get into fire?

Jon Bailey:

My roots come from a farm in Woolwich and an upbringing in Southern Maine. I was drawn to Wildland Recreation Management and Policy at Unity College, where I received a B.A. and was also involved with the Volunteer Fire Department and Ambulance Corp. One day while burning a farm field with the Fire Department, I realized I wanted to pursue a career involving fire management; my interest was ignited. After working with trail crews in the NH & VT mountains, I graduated from Unity in 2003 and headed west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore and much of the Pacific Northwest offered me significant experience as a Wildland Firefighter.

In 2006, I began my career with The Nature Conservancy, Southern Maine Field Office serving as a Preserve Steward and Prescribed Fire Crew Leader. In addition, I supported both the NH and MA chapters with these activities. Currently in my role as ME/NH Stewardship Specialist, I balance my time & skills managing several southern Maine preserves and in New Hampshire I monitor easements, and collaborate on fire restoration and stewardship projects in both states.

Why does The Nature Conservancy do prescribed fire? With this being a banner year for wildfires in the Midwest, what makes fire “good” for us?

Jon Bailey:

TNC uses prescribed fire because this is a safe and effective way to reduce wildfire risk, protect those that live and work in the area and rejuvenate many fire adaptive habitats naturally for all to enjoy. An increase in homebuilding, combined with fire-suppression, creates a perfect storm for wildfire threats. With a highly skilled and trained crew, controlled burns can safely manage a forest or grassland area next to homes, save money in the long run, and it keeps the land healthy.

So you’re a burn boss. What exactly does that mean?

Jon Bailey:

As a Burn Boss I am the leader of the crew who manages a prescribed fire or controlled burn. This entails years of extensive classroom and field training, developing an in-depth understanding of wildfire and prescribed fire management, fire ecology, risk management, and leadership. I have traveled around the country seeking out specialized experiences to be evaluated by proficient fire mentors. After the Conservancy conducted a final review of my cumulative experiences, I became a National Wildfire Coordinating Group/TNC Burn Boss.

I’m responsible for safely leading the crew during operations, providing prudent information, i.e. safety, objectives, burn tactics, communications, crew assignments, and contingencies to name only a few. I constantly evaluate all the variables that can impact the burn and make the best decisions based on real-time and expected information and adjust as needed. Crew and public safety is of the upmost concern. When the burn’s tempo accelerates, so do our decisions and actions. All the while I seek out info from the holding and igniting bosses, and the crew to evaluate & better shape the outcome & meet our goals.

Being in charge sounds tough. What’s it like to supervise a burn?

Jon Bailey:

As a burn boss I like to say, your head’s on a swivel always trying to read the fire, the crew, the weather etc. in order to make the best decisions. There are both legal & ethical responsibilities involved in supervising, which contribute to the demand. Each step in preparation is critical to the functionality of the burn and needs to be in place before we start. Burn crew and public safety is always a top priority. Precise planning with proper fuels and holding resources is necessary, including working equipment and communicating everyone’s solid understanding of our objectives. I’m always trying to look at the bigger picture, shaping the burn to get the best possible outcome.

You’ve had the chance to participate in prescribed fire in the Ossipee Pine Barrens for a few years now. Are you seeing real, tangible results from those efforts? How is the preserve different now than when you first started working there?

Jon Bailey:

Yes, the results are noticeable to me. I visit the site after every burn to evaluate conditions & effects. Over time, we have reduced the thick scrub oak understory & duff layer in forested areas and decreased fuel for wildfires. A new generation of pitch-pine seedlings are springing to life, moths and invertebrates that rely on this ecosystem are being found in greater numbers now, and the call of the whip-poor-wills can be heard within the barrens. This has contributed to the wellbeing of natural communities of the pine barrens, and also the safety for nearby neighbors.

Lastly, what are your hopes for the future of New Hampshire/New Englands’s fire program?

Jon Bailey:

I would like for us to further contribute to the education and growth of prescribed fire with our strategic partners, while continuing our restoration efforts. As fire practitioners, we grow and learn from each other and from nature. In our endeavors together, we will continue to use fire in a safe and controlled fashion, restoring the natural processes needed to maintain a healthy balance.

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