Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Only YOU can prevent wildfires!

So you know these PSAs for the US Forest Service with Sam Elliot doing the tag line at the end? Whenever I find myself trying to put out a wildfire that line just plays over and over in my head. Only YOU... WHACK! WHACK! can prevent... WHACK WHACK wildfires!

It's quite motivational, even if it is ironic (the ads imply people start fires, not put them out.) It's like Sam Elliot is personally encouraging me to stop this fire from burning all the way to Florida.

But yesterday the fire was too much. "Only You" was not going to rake out a fire almost a mile around. The Georgia Forestry Commission had to come with machinery and plow a line around the fire to contain it.

We had some big thunderstorms on Sunday and about 1/4" of rain. Monday afternoon about 5:00 pm lightning struck a full grown longleaf pine tree, maybe 80 feet tall or better. It started a fire at the base of the tree and started the top of the tree burning in the middle. I believe this tree had red heart disease, a fungal condition that makes them have a soft center. Red cockaded woodpeckers depend on this for ease of nest cavity excavation. So we don't think of it as a problem. But it was yesterday.

Looks like a soft chewy center that burned well
The decapitated tree that started the fire.
The strike went into the ground here. Often this happens and no fire occurs.
Not sure if this one was from the fire up high dropping fiery cinders on the ground
or if this was a second source.
Here's the top of the tree after if fell. Some of it is lodged in nearby trees.
Here you can see the inside of the tree up high and the corresponding chunks on the ground that came out
The tree on fire was about half a mile from the ancestral home where I was putting the wheels back on the farm truck. I heard the strike, but didn't know it was on our place. I had a little visit with my mama  and my old college roommate called my cell phone. I only talk to her about once every 6 months so we just chatted away until my phone was at 20% battery level. Then I told her I had to go and I headed home. I saw smoke as I turned the corner onto the highway. It could be from somewhere else. Lots of people burn stuff around here. But when I got into my driveway I could see flames. I was shaking with adrenaline when I called my mother on my dying cell phone and asked her to call the Forest Service and then get in the truck and go see what was happening on her side of the fire.

I rushed into the house and took off the nylon field britches I was wearing and put on heavy cotton jeans. I put on a full brimmed hat, socks and hiking shoes, slapped on my safety glasses and went to get gloves and a rake. While I was getting ready I called more people to see if anybody could come help me. My aunt Jano said she'd come. I was still shaking, but by the time I got all geared up I was pretty calm. I started putting out fire at about 6:30. "Only YOU can prevent wildfires."

After I was red faced and breathless my aunt got here. First thing she said was, "We need to call the Forestry Service." I explained that Mama should have done that and my phone battery was dead, but she should call them to be sure they were coming. I hooked hoses together to cool a very hot line of fire that was heading towards my shed. While I was hosing the fire I heard a loud WHOOMP and saw my power transformer pole lurch violently. Crap. No power, no pump, no more water. Jano finished on the phone and headed off with her rake across the burned firelane to the other side of the fire to see if she could stop it crossing the next fire lane.

Looking up the power line right of way from my transformer up towards the road.
Snag down on the power lines. We like dead trees in the woods for the woodpeckers.
Often the power company cuts them when they are close to the lines.
It's been a few years since they cleared my right of way.
That tree is STILL on fire. I don't mean in this picture,
I mean as I'm writing this over 24 hours after I took this picture.
It's not on the power lines anymore though.
I put down the hose and ran in the house and turned off the computers and switched off the beeping uninterruptible power supply on my network equipment and shut down my main computer. I grabbed my phone charger out of the wall, snatched all the plugs out of the UPS running my computers and plugged in the phone charger and phone. Then I raced back outside to commence whacking fire with the rake. "Only YOU can prevent wildfires."

The way that works is to get on the already burned side of the fire and whack out the advancing line with the flat side of the rake. Glowing pine straw was warming up my pants and shoes. The briars were tugging at the rake. I was breathing too much hot smoke. Pine smoke has a distinct smell. It's kind of a good smell. I'm not going to say it's good for you, but I'm pretty sure it's got antibiotic properties. At any rate it's not nearly as bad for you as a house on fire with who knows what kind of nasty chemical byproducts. Also, I fully endorse New Balance Country Walkers all leather waterproof shoes for this kind of emergency.

I was putting out a little 20 foot line of fire by my driveway for a second time when the Forestry Commission truck got here. It is a big impressive truck.

I showed him where he could park to unload his machine, a bulldozer fitted with a V shaped blade and a disc plow behind. He asked me what I wanted him to do. He said they had instructions to never plow here. There was a very strongly worded letter on the wall of his office from my uncle to that effect. I told him that since my uncle died about 5 years ago he could disregard that. Nobody is left but us old ladies and our bulldozer doesn't run anymore. So he got on the machine and started turning native groundcover into bare dirt in a 8 foot wide path all the way around that fire.

Georgia Forestry Service bulldozer and disc plow
Was woods, now it's dirt.
I put the last of the fire out behind my shed. Then I was able to relax enough to go in the house and see if I had enough charge on the phone to call the power company and take some pictures. Indeed I did.

The Forestry Service man finished and loaded up about the time the power company man got here. It was getting pretty dark. He had to use a flashlight to see to cut the tree off the power lines with a chainsaw. When he cut it the wires sprang back up in the air. Seemed dangerous to me. All of it was highly mechanized. Men come with a lot of machinery. Since I was too filthy to go in my house I stood in the woods with my camera with night mode. I couldn't take a shower until they got my power on to make the pump and water heater work. The power company truck has a remote controlled spotlight on the front bumper that can shine all the way down the power line so the man up in the cherry picker can see if he's pulled the wire tight enough. That was so cool. I want one!

They spliced in some new sections of wire with some cool chinese finger puzzle sort of butt splices where all they have to do is jam the thing in there. No crimping! They had a motorized bollard on the back of the truck to pull a rope through a pulley on the pole that pulled the wire up from the ground to the man in the cherry picker. It was fun to watch them work from a safe distance. I had a head lamp on my head with a red LED for astronomy. I kept that on so they would know where I was and not run over me. After they got it hooked back up and disentangled themselves from their safety harnesses they were ready to go. I followed their trucks up to road to close the gate behind them. They went to the other side of the highway to pull a shotgun breaker to reenergize my wires.

As I walked back to the house I stopped to see if the plow had cut my phone line. Without my DSL I'm kind of lost. I didn't see any cables, but I did see a little snake. He had a head no bigger than his body, and he was proportioned all wrong. He ended far too abruptly. There should have been more than 6" to that little snake. He had dirt stuck to the termination of his body and seemed unconcerned about being tailless. He wiggled away in the light of my LED flashlight. I didn't have any more camera batteries to take his picture. I hoped he wasn't a snake at all. We have legless lizards that can lose a tail and grow a new one no problem. I needed to confirm with my field guide to be sure, but I hoped that's what he was. Today with my phone charged up and my field guide in hand I found the cut-off piece of him and decided he was indeed an Eastern Glass Lizard. He'll be fine.

All the plants and animals will probably be fine. There were lots of gopher holes out there for animals to duck into to escape the fire. Birds have time to build new nests and start a new clutch of eggs. That ground cover evolved in fire. Wiregrass and bracken fern will be green again in a week. I bet I can get new fiddleheads to eat! I saw deer tracks in the freshly plowed dirt this morning.
A lot of the trees and bushes weren't burned up, just the leaves had been turned this color.
It was like the woods had been digitally post processed to look like "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou."
15 acres burned in total. The fire started a quarter mile from my house and came straight towards it. If I had been home I would have smelled smoke sooner and caught it when it was much smaller. But at least I was close! What if I'd been out of town? Lightning has started two fires near my house in 5 years and I have been here to put it out both times. I consider that very fortunate. 

I used my Logger app on my iPhone to map the line the Forestry guy plowed.
Plugged it into Google Earth and made it a polygon to calculate the area.
(Copy and paste in a website for that.) I got 15.2 acres.
Mark from the Forestry Commission came back today to measure it for his report.
His Garmin GPSII told him 16 acres.
That fire burned an hour and a half before I found it. There was smoke all over the highway and nobody driving by called 911. I guess Georgia has trained people to expect smoke from prescribed fires. Too bad they don't realize that nobody in their right mind would intentionally set their woods on fire in peak bird nesting season in the middle of a drought. Mark from the Forestry Commission says motorists only call if they see flames. That would have happened soon enough.

Lady Longleaf Lesson: Charge your phone every night!


  1. Words to live by. Phone and prevention of fire.
    Anything else?

    So glad you caught it before the worst happened.

  2. I'm virtually speechless. I can't come with anything better than, "Astonishing." That word applies not to the fire, but to what you did, what you noted about it, and what you wrote and photographed. This is autobiography material.