Some quiet time with the wildfire

In the last three days a wildfire has turned 800 acres of pasture on our ranch to black. It was a very dry pasture with very dry feed, hence the wildfire, but still  it was good feed, like standing grass hay. 

These fires happen periodically when it gets dry.  Every ranch around here gets their turn at this and it is no cause for despair.  But it is a painful blow to lose so much feed for our cattle when we are in a Stage Two Drought and there is no predicting the weather-patterns anymore.

I don’t know how the fire started. Probably a careless fisherman tossing away a cigarette into a clump of dry grass as he crossed our pasture on the way to or from the ocean. Maybe it was started deliberately by a local “firebug” – a person that likes to start and watch fires. It doesn’t really matter how it started.  What matters is that once it got started it was almost unstoppable.

This is a photo from the first night, when it had burned all day and eaten up about 200 acres. This is just before a bulldozer got in to cut a firebreak – a line where the brush has been scraped off, depriving the fire of fuel.   When the firebreak  was done the line of flames died out and it seemed we had the fire stopped.

But that was a vain hope.  The next day the wind picked up and the embers that had been smoldering “in the black” leapt to life, crossed over the firebreak and consumed 500 acres between 9 am and 1 pm.  More firebreaks were made and again as the wind died at dusk the flames stopped at the newly made firebreaks.  But there were smoldering piles waiting all along the line.

The next morning I decided to get to know this fire personally.  I have to admit that this is the first wildfire that I’ve taken the time to get to know face-to-face, one-on-one. During all the previous fires I’ve stayed distant while my father or brother got involved in assisting (and sometimes surreptitiously directing) the fire-fighting effort.  But for this one I decided I needed, finally, to try to understand what was happening.  Why was this fire defying the efforts of a half-dozen fire-crews and two helicopters?  How could it keep leaping the firebreak even though it was a back-burn i.e. burning against the wind?  What is the most effective way to fight a range wild-fire?

So I went down to the fire-line early before the wind picked up, before anyone else was there and watched the fire.  I didn’t bring any equipment to fight the fire.  I just wanted to be there with it for a while, to see it up close, rather than watching it from a distance or running around reacting to it or talking about it with other people.

Everything was black on the far side of the firebreak, white smoke streaming in tiny wisps from single blades of grass, or billowing extravagantly from half-burnt piles of debris that the bulldozer had pushed to the side.  A little way into the black orange flames burned in a pile of wood at the base of a brush tree. I stopped there looking at this few hundred feet of the fire-line on this, the back-burn end of the fire.

What amazed me was that the dirt seemed to be quietly on fire, reaching by slow black inexorable fingers across the fire-break.  I stuck the toe of my boot into the hot, black dirt and discovered that it was a root that was burning, the underground root of a clump of grass that had already been incinerated, and that burning root had blackened the dirt all around it.  Even with no fuel for it above ground the fire was slowly crossing the fire-break.  

The sun shone hot on the dark soil and the dark burning debris radiated heat and then the wind picked up slowly.  Out of what was smoldering and smoking emerged active orange flames, burning, reaching back against the wind to patches of fuel, flaming, reaching.  The fire was going to cross the break and there was still only me watching.  And then just as the fire crossed and orange flame burst out in a clump of grass in the unburnt side a team of firefighters arrived and doused the flame.  If they had been a minute later they would have been too late.  But this was just one spot on the mile-long line.  

After the fire-fighters arrived I went for a walk down the fire-break. Rounding a corner  down the line I saw a brown columnn of smoke and the roar of a wildfire at full-bore.  We had lost the line again after all.  I turned and walked quickly back to my truck, hearing the roar of the fire following me.  I told the fire-fighters what I had seen and evacuated behind the next fire break line.  Before long red flames were shooting into the sky very impressively and we had lost another thirty acres.

Finally, late on the third day, we got the only help that mattered, the thing that we could not ask for or requisition: a misting, then a very light drenching of rain.  It was not enough to put out the fires but it was enough to dampen the hot dirt and the hot air and discourage the fire from its willful spread.

On the fourth morning the wind did not pick up and the fire-fighters could get a handle on the fire.  Late on this, the fourth day, more rain came.  I’m pretty sure that it is over this time.

What did I learn there with the fire?  That if you want to fight a range fire with any hope of success you need to know a lot of things, such as the wind pattern for that area and the kind of vegetation there.  That timing is everything: you need to be able to think 12 hours ahead and at the same time be ready to change and react instant by instant  as the wind, the humidity, the terrain that the fire is on changes.   That you will probably not be able to beat the fire no matter what you do because when it starts burning it just wants to keep burning.

And that the world when it is burning is a very different place from when it isn’t.

5 Replies to “Some quiet time with the wildfire”

  1. Michelle,
    My heart goes out to you and your family during this time of crisis, as well as all those people who have lost their homes to hurricanes and earthquakes. I appreciate so much what your story tells about how you have faced this event; with calm resignation combined with tenacious desire to hold on and fight back. But your message is that fighting isn’t about conquering through force but rather with understanding. Perhaps the word adapting applies best of all.
    Your story also made me realize how differently we think about fire when it is contained and when it is not. I love sitting around a fire. We enjoy the fire pit outside and the fireplace inside once the weather gets cooler. There is a deep feeling of connection with the past, when our ancestors lives depended on the safety and security of a fire. We’ve depended on wood fires to supplement the heating of our home for many years. In the winter I love starting a fire in the fireplace stove each morning, feeling the warmth as it heats the core of our home. I’ve often thought as I start the fire, how it would feel if my life depended on this fire as the only source of heat. But controlled fire is very different than uncontrolled fire! I admit, I’ve only experienced the later once when a small fire started in the woods near our home.
    Fire is elemental, one of the four substances we used to describe the universe; earth, fire, water, air. Fire is primordial! Human evolution took a great leap when we learned to control fire. Yet, fire uncontrolled is still a force we must respect. Like the wind of a hurricane, the surge of water of a flood, the shaking of the ground in an earthquake, we are helpless to control.
    This year we have seen the forces of nature unleash their energy and fury. I can only imagine how it feels to face them and come to know them. No wonder our ancestors paid them in sacrifice.

  2. Thank you, Jody. My troubles are pretty minor compared to so many peoples’ troubles around the world right now.
    I am still pondering your question of how we might have tried to deal with this fire without the use of heavy machinery of various kinds, all fossil-fueled. One thing that helped to slow the fire were the dry-stack rock walls that were built in the the late 1800’s. Although the fire did jump them easily on the front end of the fire, they were helpful on the back site of the burn. Not 100% but certainly a factor.
    The other thing that would be different if we didn’t have copious fossil fuel is that people would probably not take it for granted that somebody else was going to put out that fire. We had a great bunch of volunteer fire-fighters from around the island helping but I think we would have more people involved if they realized that without stopping the fire their homes might be destroyed, and that there were no bulldozers or helicopters or big fire-trucks between the town and the fire. More people would have to take an active part and we’d have to think through an escape plan a lot more carefully.

    1. Michelle,
      People helping people, I think this is what will make families and communities stronger and more resilient in the future. We will all depend on each other especially during times of crisis. We also will need to “sit with the fire” pay closer attention to what is happening around us if we want to adapt to changing conditions.

      I think you are exactly right about people being willing to help fight the fire when it will spread to their homes or property if they don’t. There is blessing and a curse to social services. On the one hand it is nice to know I can rely on the fire department to come if my home starts on fire. But on the other hand we sometimes tend to wait for help rather than think “what can I do for myself?” I don’t think we would see ourselves as victims so often if we didn’t depend on government services.
      I also think people too often look to the educated experts to tell them the answer. We have been brainwashed to think that unless we are educated we can’t think up solutions for ourselves. How many people would go sit by the fire and watch to see what is happening? Rather, they might sit back and wait for answers.

      It is up to each of us to do what we can to make our lives more resilient, more able to survive and pick up the pieces after the storm has passed. We can’t depend on the government to send aid. Our staying power will need low-tech solutions, such as the dry-stacked stone wall you mentioned, as an alternative for a low-energy future. We will also need to do more by hand.

  3. Hi Michelle, thank goodness the rain came! But what a loss. Very glad to hear the damage wasn’t worse.

    How did the resident creatures respond? Any sign of deep-programmed protocols for getting the hell outta Dodge?

    1. Hi Chris, thanks! the cows were actually super-chill about the walls of flame in their pasture, grazing non-chalantly even just a few yards away. When necessary they moved to the exits in a leisurely fashion or simply went around the flames since the line would blaze up in an uneven fashion. We worried about them getting trapped in the corners but luckily that didn’t happen. Everyone bovine accounted for.

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