The Science and Art of Firefighting

Amy Kinsella ’08 had just finished a full day of work as an education ranger at Holmes Educational State Forest when she received the call: she was needed in Lake Lure to help fight the Party Rock wildfire that was raging there. She closed the gates to the state forest road, drove to Lake Lure, and headed out on a “burn-out” operation to fight the fires long into the night. By the time she returned home the next morning, she’d been working for over 30 hours.

That was Nov. 8, 2016. Kinsella’s firefighting assignments continued for the next 20 days.

“I was part of the Region III Severity team, that is created when the needs are very high for firefighting,” Kinsella explained. “We’re all trained in some capacity to be involved in fires, whether that is on the group digging in the soil, making lines or spraying water on fires, or behind the scenes making orders for resources, or thinking about logistics or looking at the weather; all employees in the North Carolina Forest Service have some role that they can fill when we have times like this where there are fires.”

Kinsella worked 16-hour days as part of a utility crew, which included team members with different credentials, tools, and abilities. As part of the burn-out operation, Kinsella helped create and control managed fires in areas that were likely to become fuel for the spreading wildfires.

“Fire is really exciting because it’s chemistry,” Kinsella said, who was an environmental studies major at UNC Asheville. “You have radiant heat, convective heat and conductive heat. And the convective and radiant heat work together…if you have two fires the radiant and convective heat can pull one fire towards the other fire.” This means the smaller fire created for the burn-out operation can be pulled into the larger, hotter fire—leaving the main fire with no way to move outward, as the potential fuel has already been used up by the smaller fire. Also, slope and topography can impact fire behavior and predictions because rising radiant and convective heat can preheat fuels up slope from the fire. Understanding how fire moves helps firefighters predict where a wildfire may spread, and how best to try to manage it.

“It’s really a science,” Kinsella said. “And it’s also an art.”

Helping to battle the wildfires, which burned for weeks and destroyed thousands of acres, was a fascinating experience for Kinsella, who describes herself as a “rookie” when it comes to firefighting. 

“I really enjoyed it, I found a lot of value being part of a team,” Kinsella said. “I liked the structure; I liked being part of something that was bigger than me.”

In addition to her classes at UNC Asheville, like an environmental restoration class and a tree identification course, Kinsella’s experience in UNC Asheville’s Outdoor Programs has stayed with her throughout her career.

“The leadership opportunity, the chance to become more comfortable in the outdoors, the opportunity to take adventures, go camping on my own—just being more confident in the woods and more confident as a leader or as a team member, those are all things that I really appreciate about my time at UNC Asheville,” said Kinsella, who worked as a counselor and an office manager in Outdoor Programs when she was a student.

Since graduating Kinsella has worked on an organic farm; with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in New Hampshire; and as an apprentice with the US Forest Service in Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky; and as a National Park Service ranger in Alaska and Cape Hatteras; before returning back to Western North Carolina.

“If you asked me if I thought I was going to work for the N.C. Forest Service, I would be surprised, but I’ve enjoyed it so far,” Kinsella said. And while her experience fighting the wildfires was challenging, it was a valuable learning experience. “I enjoy learning and teaching about fire, and I hope my future career will take me down the road of fire even more intensely.”