Meet Gerald Axelbaum, the Jewish “Burn Boss” of Olivette

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Gerald Axelbaum, 69, a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona.

Bill Motchan, Special To The Jewish Light

The plume of smoke rising above the western edge of Olivette on Tuesday, Jan. 10th was not a sign of trouble. It was a controlled burn at the Stacy Park prairie, a three-acre tract of land behind the reservoir. Once a year or so, the prairie undergoes a burn to help native plants thrive and minimize invasive plants.

At the helm of the burn is the “burn boss,” an individual who makes sure everything goes as planned. The volunteer burn boss for the Olivette Parks Department for the past six years has been Gerald Axelbaum, 69, a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona.

What does a burn boss do?

You stand back and direct the burn and tell the crew where to burn and where not to and make sure everything is safe, and where to conduct the fire. You burn around the perimeter and start by burning against the wind until you have a fire break. Then you can burn into the wind. 

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What is your background and how did you become a burn boss?

I was a chemical engineer and an elementary school teacher, and I raised Monarch butterflies for 30 years for my students. Monarchs depend on prairies and that led me to prairie preservation. When I retired, I took a Missouri Department of Conservation class on doing prescribed burns.

Monarchs are in decline, correct?

Very much so, they are endangered, primarily because of a loss of habitat.

Do you remember your first burn?

It went great. We took our time. I’m very safety conscious. you don’t want people to get hurt and you don’t want property to get hurt. I have a pretty good read on fires and have some experience with it.

Did you play with fire as a kid?

I did actually! I was always good at building fires, but I didn’t know I’d end up doing this.