Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lucking Out with a Wildfire

You'd think that the words "lucky" and "wildfire" would rarely be included in the same sentence, but last week we lucked out with a wildfire along the railroad tracks running through the farm.
Some cedar trees after they exploded into flames
It was lucky that the fire started on the one day when it was cooler and the wind was barely blowing since it was gusting over 30 mph and in the high-70's on the days before and after the day the fire happened.   It was lucky that someone was there that happened to see the fire when it first started, a train went by, about five minutes later they saw the smoke, then the fire department was called, and by the time I got to the fire it was almost completely put out.   

The fire also happened to start in one of the handful of spots along this side of the tracks where a brush-pumper could easily drive up to edge of the fire. If the fire had started a couple of hundred yards up or down the tracks, it would have been pretty hard to get close enough to the fire to fight it, and it could have gotten out of control in a hurry instead of just burning the grass about a hundred yards down one side of the tracks before the brush seemed to slow it down.  
If the fire had started on the other side of the tracks it probably would have been a completely different story, since there isn't any brush along the tracks here and there's a lot of grass.  From the photo it looks like the grass goes on and on for miles and miles even though it's only about a quarter-mile to the horizon, but it would have burned almost as fast than you can run if the fire had hit it.  It was extraordinarily good luck that the fire didn't get into that pasture.
Cool picture of the neighbor's pasture that didn't burn in the wildfire  

Looking at this photo, it still amazes me that what the camera seems to capture doesn't always match what I see in my head.  And, I also sometimes wonder which picture of the world is the "true" picture. 

Besides all that deep thinking, there's a lot to be learned from a fire like this if you ignore the very real possibility of burning down everything in sight. I'm wondering how the grass will grow back and what types of grass will grow back, and it surprised me that the brush helped contain that fire.  Maybe a little brush here and there in a pasture isn't such a bad thing and it serves a purpose if it helps with wildfires. 

I just hope I didn't use up all my good luck with this wildfire. 


  1. At least in my neck of the woods, I am always amazed at the lack of training the fire departments have on brush fires. They spend hours practicing structure fires but never a brush fire and it seems as if they get quite a few of them every year. I always shake my head when I see them fighting brush fires. Part of it is they are all just unpaid volunteers in this rural part of the state and would rather spend time with families than spending days learning to control wildfires. The other part is that I have spent months of my life setting controlled burns across thousands of acres of CRP ground and have a pretty good handle on how it burns and the best ways to control it. Granted I always have weather on my side where the fire fighters don't.

    The biggest thing that always gets me is that they struggle getting close enough to the fire from the back side of the burn line to try to put it out or start on one end and work the other way. But like you said, fires can move at tremendous speeds and are hard to put out that way. My first thought is where up ahead is the best place to start a back burn. It is a beautiful sight to see a back burn get sucked backwards into the head fire and then there is nothing but smoke.

    I'm not sure if you were reading my blog back when I first wrote this story but early in my burning career, we had backfired a field along a gravel road and fenceline and then drove around to the other side and set the head fire before returning back to the gravel road to be prepared to mop up any fires that might catch the posts on fire. The head fire took off and burnt across half the field but in an area where some green waterway converged, it left a large triangle shape patch of land unburnt. I started through the triangle from the road to relight the headfire and then just follow it back to the road only I got about halfway before it had burned through the undergrowth of the waterway and reignited. I immediately started loping back towards the fence and the road but heard the fire catching me. I ran for all I was worth but could feel the heat catching me still. When I got to the backburn area and the fence, I just dove headfirst over it into the safety of the road ditch. I never forgot that lesson and never ever walked in unburned grass again. I took the long way around!

    1. I'd guess that most of the fires that happen around the farm are probably wildfires, and those wildfires always seem to happen at the worst times like during a drought when it's 100 degrees, the wind is blowing pretty hard, and everything is ready to burst into flames, or in the middle of winter when all the grass is dormant, the wind is blowing, and it's warmer than normal.

      I was baling hay one summer during a drought, it was well over 100 and dry, but the wind wasn't really blowing and I managed to catch the baler on fire. That fire seemed like it ripped across the short grass in the field where I'd already baled the hay faster than I could have ran before it slowed down in a wooded area. It ended up burning about ten acres worth of baled hay and also burnt the baler to the ground (it almost got the tractor too).

      Two brushpumpers, a water truck, and a bunch of people showed up just before it got to the woods and the fire was out pretty quick. If the wind had been blowing harder or had been blowing a different direction it might have been a different story.

      That fire was about seven years ago and most of the volunteer firefighters were either retired local farmers or at least in their sixties.

      This last fire, only one brushpumper showed up, he made a comment about they were a little shorthanded around the volunteer fire department, and I didn't realize it until now, but I haven't seen a lot of those older guys around that much in awhile. I'm not sure what that means if a bigger wildfire ever happens in the future but it's a little concerning.

      I looked into volunteering years ago, but back then any volunteer had to live pretty close to the area and I don't live close enough. It might be worth it to check again about the requirements for volunteering, I'd hate to have a big wildfire rip through because there wasn't anyone close enough to fight it.

  2. I looked into it a number of years back but we had to complete the first level of training which meant several months of classes three times a week followed by a week of hands on training somewhere in the state. All that just to volunteer and not get paid. I decided that my family was worth more than being a firefighter and left it up to others who were more gungho about it. Without any meaningful tort reform in this country, everything is going to end up like that just to protect ourselves from lawsuits.

    I think it was two years ago I saw what remained of a combine fire in the fall during corn harvest. I was impressed that for a machine largely full of metal parts, there certainly wasn't much left. I think that is always why my dad insists on plenty of fire extinguishers during harvest or when we used to put up a lot of hay. In your case where it burnt so fast, a fire extinguisher wouldn't have saved the ten acres but might have saved the baler, maybe.

    1. Never ever buy a soft-core baler, I got a "deal" on that used soft-core baler and hated it from the first time I used it until it burnt to the ground. For those that don't know, a soft-core baler has a fixed baling chamber which means that the hay is flying around loose when you start the bale, then it compresses as the bale gets bigger. Since it's loose, it's supposed to be easier to bale hay that isn't as dry (the bale breathes more or something).

      But, I think that all that loose hay flying around inside the baler was one reason why the baler caught fire so quick. A hot bearing or something got hot enough to catch fire, the hay was all loose and flying around, the air was almost being fanned by all the moving belts and hay, and WHOOSH it all caught fire. The fire hit the hydraulic hoses to the tractor (don't buy a baler that uses the tractor's hydraulics), so I couldn't dump the bale in time (which might have saved the baler), then it hit the belts and all the hydraulic fluid and it was too late to do anything at all with a fire extinguisher.

      If I had had a fixed chamber round baler (or solid-core baler) like I do now, I'm not so sure it would have caught fire as quick if at all.

      Now I carry a fire extinguisher in the tractor and have one mounted on the baler, plus the pickup usually has at least one fire extinguisher and some shovels, etc. to help fight any fire. If I can find someone, I usually also like to have a "spotter" watching for fire while I'm baling.

      After that baler catching fire, I'd hate to have a combine fire in the middle of a wheat field. Insurance would cover the combine, but it wouldn't cover a hundred acres of wheat.