Thursday, June 08, 2006


We had a forest fire in our back yard yesterday.

I mean, it was a fire. And it was in the forest. That makes it a forest fire -- right?

Okay, it was really little, for a forest fire. But it was all ours. :-)

Dad and I were working in his garden about 3 p.m. when a huge clap of thunder nearly knocked us out of our boots. (Fortunately I was wearing Tevas.) We saw the flash of lightning on the mountain. After a moment of stunned silence we looked at each other and both said, "Wow, that one was CLOSE!"

Shortly thereafter, dad noticed a smoke plume tendrilling up from the trees on the mountainside north of us.

We called the local fire chief of our just-getting-started volunteer fire department, and notified him that a wildland fire was in progress within our jurisdiction. I hurried and got my boots on. Then my dad and brother-in-law and I loaded our firefighting gear and shovels and chainsaw into the SUV and went wheeling up the mountainside trying to spot the fire.

We found access to the area that was burning, from a rocky road high up on the mountainside, then hiked down through the pinyon pines and junipers searching for the fire. It smelled smoky all around us, but the fire was actually several hundred yards from the road, so we scrambled down the hill covering the area in a search pattern.

As we located the fire and arrived at the spot, there were flames smoldering in the light debris on the ground, and one single old juniper, trunk about 18" in diameter, was actively burning along the trunk and several major limbs. It was clear that lightning had struck the old tree near the top, some 15 feet up. A big stripe of bark was peeled away and blown to oblivion, and a deep scar marked the burning trail running down the trunk. One of the large limbs on the side of the tree had been nearly detached by the blow, and as it burned it was spreading burning twigs into the ground fuel. The ground fire involved a circle at the base of the tree about ten feet across.

We scattered the burning fuels on the ground with our shovels, and smothered the flames with dirt. But much of the fire involved the burning tree, higher than we could reach. So we fetched down the chainsaw and proceeded to fell the tree.

The saw had been pretty well used for last years firewood season, so the chain wasn't in very good shape. Juniper wood is very dense and hard, so we made a long job of it.

I discovered that the chainsaw exhaust port very thoughtfully directs the exhaust stream away from the operator. Which in our case, by coincidence, also happened to be in the general direction of a big tree trunk that was currently on fire. We'd smother the flames down and saw a bit, then the exhaust stream would fan up the flames again. Made it pretty interesting for a while.

While we were gnawing away at the tree, one of the neighbors showed up on his 4-wheeler. He had a better chain on his saw, so we turned it over to him, and finally got the tree tipped over. Naturally it hung up six different ways, so it still took a bit more work to finally put the trunk onto the ground, but we eventually prevailed.

In the mean time, our local fire department team had started up the big tanker truck and were lumbering up the hill. Two local firefighters brought backpack sprayers down to mop up the fuels that were still hot and smoking.

It looks to be a lively fire season shaping up in the area.

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