Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Wild Ride

In my several years of burning, we’ve only had a handful of fires get away from us – nothing serious, nothing that needed the fire department – but they are always scary, exhilarating, and memorable. This one was no different.

I was filling my waterpack at the truck when Dave’s voice came over the radio, “I’ve got a jumper on the north line. I need help quick!” Quickly shrugging on the pack, I started moving in his direction, listening to Matt and Lee on the radio, asking for instructions of where to go and what to do.

As I came up to Jen, the fifth on the crew, in the middle of the wooded, hilly unit, she said, “What should I do?” Jen is the newest on the crew and has not had much experience with things getting out of control. “Just a minute - let me ask Dave what he wants,” I replied. Pushing the transmit button on the radio in my chest harness, I said, “Dave, I’m in the middle of the unit with Jen. Where do you want us?”

“Rich, I think we can handle this with just the three of us. Why don’t you two hold the line down there ‘till we get this under control,” Dave answered back. “Copy that,” I replied. I told Jen to keep back burning, keeping the downed trees from catching fire and that I was going to drift back down to the southwest corner and make sure the fire didn’t cross any lines.

I got about ten steps away when Dave came back on the radio again, “Rich! It’s getting away from us. Get up here now!” I turned around and started hustling up through the middle, four gallons of water sloshing on my back. “Jen! Drop back down to the south, and hold the line there. If you aren’t comfortable with what it’s doing there, don’t mess around. Put it out,” I shouted as I went by her.

Coming over a low ridge that had blocked my view to the north, I saw the fire front racing up the steep slope from the pond to the ridge top. I couldn’t see Dave, Matt or Lee. “Dave, I’m at the pond, coming from the south. Which way do you want me to go?” I radioed. “Rich, take the west side, and try to stop the front there,” he answered.

I pulled my Nomex neck protector into place and ran down to where the fire tied in to the pond. The wind was pushing the flames above and to my left, running up the hill. I had to start at the bottom, or it would just run away below and past me. You can’t find a head fire from the front. You have to fight it from the flank and try to catch the head.

I slapped down the Plexiglas shield on my helmet and started pumping the brass wand, spraying water on the flames as I climbed the hill. I had to hope that fire would not re-ignite behind me; I needed to get to the top of the hill and the head of the fire. There was nothing over the hill that was going to stop it. The smoke and heat were pretty intense, and the sound of my panting breaths was amplified by my helmet as I reached the ridge.

The fire had gone beneath and past two logs that had formed a kind of wind break, slowing it down. However, the logs and an inconveniently place pile of firewood had caught fire, pouring heat and smoke into the area I needed to be to put out the head of the fire. I took a deep breath and jumped into the smoke, frantically spraying water at the flames, before I had to scramble back to fresh air. My lungs were burning, and I was not making any headway.

Matt appeared out of the smoke from the other side of the logs. “Matt, help me put this out. The smoke’s too thick. I can’t stay in there long enough to put it out,” I called out to him. We fought it together for awhile until I looked over my shoulder and glanced down the hill I had come up. Oh shit!

I started running back down the hill, gasping into my radio, “My line’s re-ignited! I’ve got to get to the bottom of the hill. Matt, try to hold it there, but watch your back!” The flames were racing up the hill again, building momentum. I reached the pond and started spraying my way back up the hill, still panting in my helmet. At the top, Matt and I finally managed to stop new flames springing away down the hill, but the logs and firewood still merrily burned away, threatening to throw sparks and embers downwind.

I finally ran out of water and had to trot back down the hill and past the pond to the hose spigot on a building on the property. A thoughtful civilian had brought out a large pitcher of water and a plastic cup. As my pack filled from the spigot, I gulped down two cups of water before heading back to the ridge top.

Finally, with a couple hundred feet of flat hose connected to that spigot, we got enough water on the logs and firewood to calm things down. As Dave poured water on to the logs and woodpile, I ranged around downwind, looking for spot fires and smoldering areas. Turning around to look at Dave… Oh shit, not again!

“Dave, Turn around!” I shouted into the radio. The line had flared up again, and the wind was pushing the flames into fresh leaf litter. Dave turned and started spraying from his side. I quickly ran through the fire to the other side and started spraying away. We knocked it down and stood there breathing heavily. Dave grabbed his radio and said, “OK, people. Let’s shut this puppy down. I don’t like the conditions. I want to put it completely out.” So after a couple hours of mop up, we finally put it all out. Needless to say, we were a little tired. Then it was on to the second burn of the day…

The post-game analysis revealed what caused the three-quarter acres of “bonus acreage,” as we call it. Just before we arrived, a landscaping crew had come through with at least eight guys wearing gas-powered backpack leaf blowers, like a swarm of angry killer bees. They had been clearing out flowerbeds and trail edges and in the process, had fluffed up all the leaves along the west edge of the burn unit. The jump occurred in the northeast corner, where our firebreak had big fluffy leaf piles on either side. Dave reported that he had driven the ATV (our new toy outfitted with tank and pump sprayer) right into the fire, driving along the fire front, trying to spray it out. When the smoke and heat became too much, he jumped off to fight it on foot, abandoning the ATV. Lee came up at about this point and apparently shouted, “The tires are on fire! The tires are on fire,” and promptly put them out…

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