Volunteering : Prescribed Burn Support

A photo of the sky through trees. The sky is mostly clear with smoke from the prescribed burn rising from the ground.

Trail/Park: Coldwater Spring, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

I want to acknowledge this service took place on the traditional territory of the Wahpekute and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. To learn more about the tribes and these lands, please follow the links provided.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to assist the National Park Service with a prescribed burn on Coldwater Spring‘s restored prairie. I’ve been honored to play a small part in the restoration of this site to oak savannah prairie and wetland. My involvement as a volunteer crew member started with single events back in 2014 and grew to a weekly commitment in 2020 as I was furloughed from my job due to the pandemic. The park’s two volunteer crews are managed by Mississippi Park Connection in partnership with the park rangers. Many partnership like this exist across the country, aiding park staff in the immense amount of work needed to keep parks usable for visitors.

The photo is of a small group of volunteers at the park standing in front of one of the fire crew trucks. Ruth is a member of the group, wearing a red jacket.
Photo courtesy of Park Guide Jessica Nelson, National Park Service

As a core crew member, I was offered a rare opportunity to provide support to a prescribed burn that would be conducted in late April. Of all the things I’ve wanted to do in my outdoor experiences, seeing a prescribed burn first hand has been at the top of the list. Truthfully I wasn’t sure what to expect. We spent a few hours ahead of the burn raking along burn breaks and around smaller trees. Doing so would keep the fire from crossing break lines and damaging some of the smaller trees in the designated area.

During the week ahead of the burn, we received regular communication from the park staff as the date and time shifted due to weather conditions. I learned quickly to check my email every few hours and not count on what I’d heard the evening before. Finally we got word that the date had been set and a time to arrive.

The afternoon of the burn our small group of about eight volunteers arrived and awaited instructions. For some this would be one of several times they had assisted in an experience like this. The ranger joined us for a briefing as the crew readied for their work. We learned the crew conducting the burn included members of the Great Lakes Fire Management crew as well as members of both the Coldwater Spring (Mississippi River National Recreation Area) and Saint Croix National Scenic River Area park staff. The entire crew totaled approximately 20 people trained in Wilderness Fire Management.

Our primary job as volunteers was to help direct park visitors away from the area during the burn. While that seems an easy task, it isn’t always. Because of where the park sits and the numerous access points we were spread out in pairs at trail junctions where people might inadvertently enter the park. As volunteers we held no real authority other to inform people coming along the trails the fire was occurring and there would be a lot of smoke from the fire. Fortunately the few people we encountered were appreciative of the information and chose other routes around the park.

After getting our directions from the park ranger, we headed off via the Minnehaha Trail dropping pairs of volunteers at the primary intersections with other trails. My hope was to land at a spot close enough to the burn to see a bit of what was happening. I got my wish, being dropped off at a junction with a view of the spring house. As we waited, we chatted about our work on the crew as well as directing a few hikers to alternate routes.

It seemed to take a long time for the crew to progress. They moved through the park south to north. We could see the hazy smoke in the late afternoon making its way closer to us, but didn’t have view of the crews or fire until they were nearly in front of us. Against the sun, the crew were shadows floating in and out of the smoke. Distant at first and then right in front of us.

Watching the crew come through we got to see them trailing fuel to light the dry grasses, ATVs following back and forth, monitoring the status of the fire. The dry vegetation crackled. The smoke drifted our way. Then, nearly as quickly as the fire had been in front of us, it burned out. The crew continued to move north as a few small piles of dry wood smoldered and burned. An ATV came back around with water to douse the wood fires.

The photo shows burned ground in the foreground, smoke still rising from a few spots of smoldering grasses. The smoke slightly covers the Spring House.

As the fire died down we moved closer to take a look. It was interesting to see how quickly the prairie grass had burned and the fire had died out. The smell of smoke was still in the air. As we turned back to the trail to keep watching for people on the trail, we could see the smoke crossing the Minnehaha Trail further north.

We waited patiently for word that our work was done. Just over an hour from the time we were placed along the trail the burn was over. We got word we could leave, choosing to walk through the burn area. I was glad to see the prep work done in the weeks before had worked to protect the young burr oak trees growing on the prairie. Along the edge of the trail I found a tennis ball, largely in tact, which had been lost just off the trail.

Getting to the parking area at the trailhead the crew was finishing up one last burn in the small circle just behind the entrance sign. Leaving the park I was grateful for the view into the work of the fire crews. Prescribed burns take the place of the natural forces like lightening which would normally start fires in the wild. I’ve since learned more about the use of prescribed fires. They play an important part in the overall health of the land. If you’re interested in learning more about this specific prescribed burn, please check out the resources below.


Mississippi Park Connection’s Coffee with a Ranger discussion of the burn on Facebook.

Information on the prescribed burn can be found at on the National Park website for Coldwater Spring.

Next Post Preview: We’ll head back to the trails with updates on my latest adventures.

GEAR: Merrell Women’s Siren 3 Mid Waterproof, Marmot Kompressor Pack, SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Women’s Micro Vario Cor-Tec TA trekking poles. Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets or check out my posts titled “Gear in Review”.


Photo of a group of hikers on a sunny day in a field heading towards a wooded area. The photographer has taken the photo from behind the group.

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