Sunday, June 25, 2006

Firefighting II

 We have a newly formed community fire brigade, Indianola Volunteer Fire Department. Our crew is designated as Sanpete County Fire Station 18. We are assigned to cover the eight local subdivisions and all of the public and private lands in the north end of Sanpete County.

We have a 1000 gallon tanker truck with pump that we call our light water tender, and a pickup truck with 200 gallons that serves as light brush truck. Next week we are getting a 5000 gallon water tender that is being retired from a Moab fire department. Eight residents in our community are certified for wildland firefighting, and we have a number of other enthusiastic but less formally qualified volunteers.

On Thursday night we responded to a fire alarm in our area. Six members of our department reported to the fire scene at Skyline Mountain Resort with our two engines. It was totally dark by the time we arrived at the fire. There were about 20 vehicles of various types there, with 50 or so firefighters working to put down the flames.

A campfire had gone out of control at one of the many cabins in the area. It started spreading in the deep cottonwood fluff that accumulates like snowdrift in the shady canyon bottom under all the tall old cottonwoods. People who own these homes obviously love the big old trees, but they also make for a serious fire hazard. Anyway, apparently big clumps of burning fluff were drafted up by the quickly growing flames, spinning away on the draft, and spreading more than a dozen spot fires along about half a mile of the canyon bottom. Our crew pulled into one of the nearby home sites and put out one of the bigger spots just alongside the stream. It was burning in a big pileup of dead logs alongside the stream. There was also a nearby cottonwood tree that was actively burning all along the trunk up to about 40 feet high. The tallest flames were too high up for us to reach with our water, and it was too dangerous to run chain saws in the dark to cut it down, so we hosed down what we could reach and stayed away out from under the burning tree.

We worked on putting out flames and wetting down hot spots until just after midnight. Then rolled up the hoses and came home.

Then, on Friday morning we went back to do the mopping up. We spent several more hours in the canyon, searching the area for remaining hot spots that might flare up again.

In fact the entire Skyline Drive area of the Manti-La Sal Forest is currently in a stage where old dead trees predominate. People love those big old trees because they are so picturesque, but most don't realize that they represent a forest nearing the end of life. Sooner or later the whole forest will burn, mostly all the range over 8500' elevation, an area over 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. All those aging Engleman spruces and subalpine firs -- old and susceptible to bark beetles. The growth habit of this forest ecosystem tends toward cycles of new growth, maturation, senescence, bark beetle infestation, fire, and regeneration, over a period of a couple of hundred years. Right now, we are waiting for a really big fire. There has not been a very large scale fire on this range in recorded history.

Some forest ecologists believe humans have disturbed the natural cycle by putting out fires too quickly. Not too long ago this interrupted cycle balanced out the logging and clearcutting practices we used to harvest timber. But timber cutting is much curtailed these days, as many environmental groups find such fault with cutting down forests, and tend to sue everyone that tries. The US Forest Service has been developing a "fire use" policy for some time now. The idea is to let moderate to small wildland fires burn, with emphasis on monitoring and containment to protect developed areas. Some think it is already too late, and the only thing that can happen now is massive fires all over the west, on the scale of the Yellowstone conflagration.

The Millburn and Oak Creek areas are our neighbors -- the southern end of our Indianola Ward, though our communities are separated by an undeveloped mountain ridge between us. Happily for them, their firefighting duty is covered by the Fairview FD, which is better manned and equipped for the job. Up until a month ago, we had to rely on Fairview to cover our fire calls. In most cases their response time for this area was almost an hour. Mostly they would show up to help comb the ashes. We're hoping to do a lot better, given some time and a bit of practice.

This summer we are bidding on a work contract up in the Joe's Valley area. The project is to spray weedy species that thrive in areas where cattle have heavily overgrazed for many years.

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