Friday, March 10, 2006

Forest Fire

FOREST FIRE WARNING!

That’s what the e-mail from the weather service says.

Right now, up on top of the mountain, the wind is gusting up to 20-30 miles an hour.

And even down here, down in the valley, we are getting a steady ten mile an hour wind.

On top of the strong wind, do you remember the last time it rained? I mean a serious rain?

And there’s hardly been any snow this winter.

Can you imagine what would happen if there was a spark up on top of the mountain?

How long would it take a fire to roar down the hillside with a wind that strong pushing it along?

It’s hard to think of our valley having a major forest fire, though, I do remember a fire up on top of the mountain about fifteen years ago.

I remember that fire pretty clearly.

It was one of those dry summers with little real rain and constant afternoon thunderstorms. One storm in particular had worked over the ridge pretty good. I remember seeing maybe half a dozen lightning strikes up there.

But it wasn’t for several days that someone saw smoke wafting across the rock cliffs up there.

Unlike tonight, there wasn’t any noticeable wind that summer. The fire, instead of roaring down the mountain side, just sat there and smoldered.

It must have started up there where all of those pine needles that have fallen in the crevices between those large boulders.

And smoldered.

And smoldered.

And even when there was enough of a fire down in between the rocks for someone over near The Plains to see the smoke there wasn’t much of a fire.

Not like if it was on a night like tonight.

Instead, by the time anyone got up to the top of the mountain, the damage was only the pine needles, and a half dozen old trees that had died and fallen down in-between the rocks.

However, once the fire was discovered I think every volunteer fire department in the county was called out.

I remember leading the dozens of kids, the young men, the firefighters, all dressed in their firefighting equipment with a five gallon water container strapped to their backs up the side of the mountain.

Just that summer I had cut open a trail from our farm to the top of the mountain, and all night long and into the next day the firefighters would fill up their water packs from our spring and hike up the side of the mountain to the fire, empty their water on the fire, and then make the hike back down again.

Sometime the next afternoon the fire was declared ‘under control’ and the firefighters got to stop hiking up and down the mountain carrying 40 pounds of water each time.

Talk about hard, sweaty, work.

And as a side note, sometime during the next week, well after the fire had been extinguished by the firefighters carrying water up the mountain five gallons at a time, the Army, out of a nearby base (since closed), bulldozing a road in from interstate 66 and up along the top of the mountain to where the fire had been. This road, over the next decade, was used by four-wheelers to access the top of the mountain where on numerous occasions I would climb up the mountain and find that the people in their jeeps and trucks had left behind them unattended campfires. Fires which could have, on a night like this, easily got out of control and burned down every tree in the valley. (Talk about unintended consequences).

But that’s not the only sign of forest fires in our valley. On the west side of the valley most of the trees that are over 70 years old are hollow.

On the uphill side of the trees down where the tree meets the ground are openings.

This is a sign that there was a major forest fire. When the fire rages through a forest and swirls around the trunk of a tree it gets hotter (foresters have told me) on the uphill side, and will often burn a hole into the tree.

If you cut one of those trees down and look into the hollow core you can still see the black charcoal as a sign of the fire over half a century ago.

And Wenonah remembers a fire on the other side of the valley.

She says, “I remember it was late summer and I was home with my mother when all of a sudden there were flames roaring up on the ridge.

”I remember the house filling with smoke as the fire got closer and I remember my mother not knowing what to do. We were pretty much trapped in the house. The fire quickly came down the side of the mountain and jumped right over the road.

“Our way out of the valley was blocked by fire. And my father was a way at work with the truck.

”We were really frightened. This was back when the farm was way out in the country and no one else lived in the valley. My mother and I were the only ones back here when the fire came over the top of the mountain down to the bottom of the valley and jumped over the road.

“We thought we were going to get burnt alive. There was no where to run except to run through the woods ahead of the flames.

“And then suddenly, the wind must have changed directions. The fire got down to the bottom of the valley where the creek, where Catlett Branch flows, and it just stopped.”

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