Notes from Windward: #62

Fire season starts early this year

Walt talks about fighting the neighbor's grass fire

At Windward, we don't have to worry about floods or hurricanes, earth quakes or tornados; the natural disaster that we have to prepare for each year is wildfire. It's such a fact of life in the forest that we don't talk in terms of "if fire comes this way" but rather in terms of what we'll do "when fire comes this way."

Being caught up in a wildfire is something you'll never forget, and something which will forever change the way you feel about a hot summer day in the forest. Even when things are at their most quiet and tranquil, there looms a sense of how very fast it can all change into a nightmare.

the point of ignition
A hot, windy summer day makes me start to itch; not from the heat, but rather as Shakespeare has MacBeth say,

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."

Once there's smoke in the air, there's not a lot you can do; the time to fight fire is before the fire starts. To that end, we spent last weekend burning a dozen trailer loads of dead branches trimmed from the lower trunks of the trees in The Grove. That area is going to be used for a woodland wedding later this summer, so with the help of friends from Portland, we did what we could to reduce the fire danger for that area.

When fire comes to that area, it will just rush through leaving the trees unharmed. What kills the trees is when the dead and dry lower branches catch fire and take the heat up the tree. With nothing much to burn, the wave front of burning grass will pass by too quickly to penetrate the bark and do damage.

Once a burn becomes a forest fire, there's not much you can do other than to protect your buildings. We do that in advance by removing burnable brush from around them, and by techniques such as utilizing metal roof construction since metal roofs won't catch fire when an ember lands on them. Cedar shake roofs are beautiful and blend in with the woods nicely, but all it takes is one spark and they're gone in no time at all.

Fergie the tractor and the water tanker
Still, there's a time between the point of ignition and the point at which you have a full scale forest fire on your hands, and that's when your first response capability can make all the difference. To that end, we've built a first response tanker that carries 300 gallons of water and uses a pump to shoot a stream of water some 50 feet.

Yesterday, it made all the difference.

A neighbor was building a utility trailer. After making a weld, he was using a grinder to clean up the weld. The wind took one of the sparks from the grinder and landed it in the dry grass behind his work area. By the time he'd stopped grinding and turned around, the grass was on fire.

He fought the fire with what he had at hand, a blanket, but all that did was fan the flames. Between the shock of the unexpected fire and the inhalation of the smoke, he started to experience severe chest pains. He'd recently had open heart surgery, so he called 911 to report the fire and request an ambulance.

the far side of the road is Windward
We usually use our mailing address of 55 Windward Lane, but the street address for our new entrance will be 355 Wahkiacus. When a call went out announcing that there was a grass fire at 340 Wahkiacus, a friend with a scanner radio passed along the word to Cindy, and she passed the word along to me.

I got in my pickup to go investigate, but decided to hook up the tanker and take that with me just in case. This is where the real kudos go to Brad; he stopped a forest fire in the making, and he wasn't even here.

Brad had left the afternoon of the day before to go back to South Dakota to attend a wedding, but in the morning before he left, he took the time to go to The Grove, retrieve the tanker, refill the water used over the weekend, and leave it here on the landing ready to go. It was his foresight and attention to detail that enabled the rest of the story to have a happy ending.

Windward is bounded on its eastern side by the county road. As I rode the tractor downhill towards the smoke (and it's an interesting feeling to be using a light tractor to "tow" a ton of water downhill), I could see that the fire had spread to more than an acre, but hadn't yet gotten out of the field in which it had started.

the fire jumped the dirt road to the north, and was burning the needles under this pine
The wind was blowing towards the northwest, so this was a case in which Windward really was "to windward" If the fire got away, it was heading straight for us.

I started wetting down the fire line as it came up to the fence along the county road since that posed the most immediate danger of igniting the field across the county road. Once I had that shut down, I moved back uphill to hold the fire at the dirt road that separated the burning field from the property to the north.

That was tough since the owner had put a gate across the road and secured it with a chain and padlock. I had a 150' of hose on the tanker, so shoved the hose under the gate, climbed over the gate, and arrived just in time to put out a patch of fire that had already jumped the lane.

As you can see, the fire was well established in the dry needles laying at the base of a pine. Had it burned much longer, the pine would ignited and sent a shower of embers everywhere, and at that point, it would have been a job for the heavy equipment.

right behind the fire jump there was a large pile of dry slash
As it was, I was able to douse that fire, and to put out the flames along the fence line. That put a stop to the progression of the fire along its west and north sides; in other words, the fire was stopped from running with the wind. A grass fire will burn into the wind, but only slowly, and by that time, the real fire fighters were starting to arrive.

As it was, there wasn't much for them to do but mop up the hot spots within the burned field. They quickly made sure that everything was secure and proceeded to check out their gear. This was their first call out of the fire season, so it was a good chance to test systems and equipment.

The fire chopper even arrived and landed in our pasture to await developments. If the fire had gotten out of hand, the chopper would have lifted water from the river to dump on hot spots. It sure was comforting to hear the "whomp whomp whomp" sound of its rotors coming in.

Afterwards, there was a time of bonding as the neighbors all gathered together to express their relief at the fire not being any worse than it was. Like in any neighborhood, there's always room for friction between neighbors, but when something like this happens, petty aggravations are quickly forgotten.

the bucket chopper keeping watch from Windward's pasture
Today it was my chance to be there for the neighborhood, but other neighbors have been there for us at other times. In the face of wildfire, we're all family.