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Meridian Fire, Michigan

May 19th, 2010 No comments

Interesting fire burning just northeast of Roscommon, MI (yes, as in the Roscommon Equipment Center that does a lot of forest fire R&D!)

It’s burning in a white pine, red pine, and jack pine area of Huron National Forest and adjacent areas. Wildland Fire Today has some good posts here, here, here, here, and here.

That may not be quite typical of southern New England in how large of areas are pine dominated, although it looks a lot more like southern Maine. But it’s burning in moderate winds and low humidity (14%) that is very common in New England, as well as flat terrain. These are conditions much more like New England then you see in fires out west.

Note the spotting that looks perhaps a mile ahead of the main fire line.

This is a good presentation on spotting, archived here.

“Close In” spotting is stuff that might go a few feet — say cross a 4′ to 6′ control line. If it’s only an occasional spot easily policed by a firefighter with a handtool or indian can, not a problem. If it’s prolific, you need a change in strategy and tactics.

Prolific is one of the big warning signs. Think the ember storms you see in some videos engulfing houses, since they can light an overwhelming number of fires.

Short range: Beyond “close in”; say tens of feet up to 600′

Medium range: 600′ to a mile.

Long range: > 1 mile

This picture shows spotting across a good 40′ of gravel and pavement…clearly this fire was going to require big burnouts from control lines well in advance of the fire to attack it at this time of day. I believe that’s Jack Pine. Jack Pine can be “scrubby” in poor soil, but it can also grow tall and straight. It is closely related too (and can hybridize with) Lodgepole Pine.

It sounds like most progress was made after night fall when they could make good progress on building fire lines as the fire left the crown and came to ground. Makes you think of the need for fairly long range planning, trying to use air resources and initial attack to protect structures and control spot fires during the day while pre-positioning resources like dozers and burn out crews to launch an all out assault once the conditions turn more favorable in the cooler, moister, and usually calmer evening.

The northeast wind on Tuesday, 5/18 that drove it turned to a northwest wind on Wednesday, 5/19. I’d imagine the focus of efforts was to make sure that southern / eastern flank was well secured, as well as being concerned if there were any unknown spot fires that could be driven by the new winds.

The forest types of Huron National Forest:

As a followup, I was the area and found the 1980 Mack Lake Fire which is documented here. It started 8 miles almost due east of this fire.

Lots of good stuff in that report. The Mack Lake fire ranks in the top for forest fire spread and BTU release rate recorded in North America. It averaged 2mph, hit 7mph peak. 27,000 BTUs/foot/second were estimated, with a theoretical maximum (for all forests) being 30,000.

It was a prescribed burn that got out of control, resulting in a LODD (Dozer Operator), 44 structures, and 20,000 acres lost in the first six hours, then it was essentially out except for mop-up.

Perhaps most interesting: This area of Michigan, per tree ring research, experiences a 10,000 acre fire an average of every 28 years.

They seem to follow a basic pattern — the weather isn’t remarkably bad (moderately warm day, moderately low humidity, moderate winds) but once they get going they run like a bat out of hell until it’s either early evening or they run out of jack pine and into hardwoods. Then the fire goes to ground and is easily contained overnight.

The last major fire before this one was Mack Lake, so it this was pretty much right on schedule.

A visit to Rhode Island, and more

May 10th, 2010 No comments

Photo essay from the Wood River Valley area: http://d90.us/wooden_nutmeg/essays/Arcadia_2010/

A really great write up of managing fire in New England Pine Barrens, archive here.

In addition to those “natural community” issues, few active firefighters have seen truly severe fire conditions in New England.

Although rainfall alone doesn’t dictate fire danger (frequency of rain is likely much more important in New England in keeping fire danger to “high” or below), the following graphs show a very sharp difference between pre-1970 and post-1970 climate. You can get more data for different regions of the New England states here.



I strongly suspect that it is not coincidence that we haven’t had a serious forest fire problem in southern New England since the early 1960s. Before, roughly, 1970 we used to experience a deep drought about every ten years. Nothing since 1970 has matched those 10 year droughts.

Also I’m still researching the frequency rain events. Rain tends to “reset” the fire danger.

Let’s assume a cycle like this; while conjecture it’s not an unreasonable cycle based on my observations over the years:
Day 1: Rain (Low danger)
Day 2: Moderate
Day 3: High
Day 4: High
Day 5: High
Day 6: High
Day 7: Very High
Day 8: Very High
Day 9: Very High
Day 10: Rain (Low)

Now add in one overnight rain:
Day 1: Rain (Low danger)
Day 2: Moderate
Day 3: High
Day 4: High
Day 5: Rain overnight (moderate)
Day 6: Moderate
Day 7: High
Day 8: High
Day 9: High
Day 10: Rain (Low)

Most people wouldn’t notice a major impact from an extra shower or two in April, but it could be having a very large impact on fire danger.

Rain isn’t always good…

May 3rd, 2010 No comments

This passed through this afternoon. Fortunately low fire danger. If this had set up when active fires were burning it would have been a potentially critical situation, at least in the areas that didn’t get the down pours associated with the t-storms. At my house we just got barely enough to wet dry surfaces with a few minutes of high winds:

From a strategic point of view, crews in light fuels, like hardwood leaf litter, would probably be OK as long as they know it’s coming and consider the impact on slop over of control lines, and are ready to get into good black. Crews in brush or under potential crown fires should be advised to seek safer areas till it passes.

URGENT - WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TAUNTON MA
401 PM EDT MON MAY 3 2010

CTZ003-004-MAZ005-006-012>014-RIZ001-032115-
/O.CON.KBOX.WI.Y.0022.000000T0000Z-100503T2100Z/
TOLLAND CT-WINDHAM CT-CENTRAL MIDDLESEX MA-WESTERN ESSEX MA-
SOUTHERN WORCESTER MA-WESTERN NORFOLK MA-SOUTHEAST MIDDLESEX MA-
NORTHWEST PROVIDENCE RI-
INCLUDING THE CITIES OF...UNION...VERNON...PUTNAM...WILLIMANTIC...
FRAMINGHAM...LOWELL...LAWRENCE...MILFORD...WORCESTER...FOXBORO...
NORWOOD...CAMBRIDGE...FOSTER...SMITHFIELD
401 PM EDT MON MAY 3 2010

...WIND ADVISORY REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 5 PM EDT THIS
AFTERNOON...

A WIND ADVISORY REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 5 PM EDT THIS AFTERNOON.

A NARROW LINE OF SHOWERS...IS GOING TO PRODUCE A BURST OF WESTERLY
WINDS GUSTING TO NEAR 50 MPH. THIS WILL CAUSE A FEW TREE LIMBS AND
BRANCHES TO BREAK...RESULTING IN SCATTERED POWER OUTAGES AND ROAD
CLOSURES ACROSS EASTERN MASSACHUSETTS...NORTHERN RHODE ISLAND AND THE
NORTHEAST CORNER OF CONNECTICUT.

ALREADY THERE HAVE BEEN REPORTS OF TREES DOWN WITH GUSTS FROM 45 TO
55 MPH ACROSS WESTERN AND CENTRAL MASSACHUSETTS AND NORTH CENTRAL
CONNECTICUT BETWEEN 240 PM AND 340 PM.

THIS LINE OF SHOWERS PASSES THRU QUICKLY AND WINDS WILL QUICKLY
SUBSIDE WITHIN AN HOUR OF ITS PASSAGE.

Massachusetts Wildland Urban Interface Training

May 3rd, 2010 No comments

Held 27 March 2010 at a former Air Force radar station in the Cape Cod National Seashore..


(Dave Celino is the big kuhana — Chief Fire Warden, Bureau of Forest Fire Control call sign C-1)
I have it archived here.

Categories: Policy, Strategy, Tactics Tags:

There are no Hotel Vendomes in Forest Fires.

April 14th, 2010 No comments

On my walk this afternoon, this thought formed in my head:

There are no Hotel Vendomes in forest fires.

On June 17th, 1972 the Boston Fire Department responded to and extinguished a fire at the Hotel Vendome.

During overhaul part of the building collapsed, killing nine firefighters.

Hotel Vendome

In analyzing the tragedy, it was determined that renovations to build a ballroom years earlier had put the load of five stories onto a single cast iron column. Additional renovations in 1972 installed duct work along the beam supported by that column, creating new forces. Water from firefighting added more load to the structure. The column that failed hadn’t been exposed to the fire.

The firefighters that day could not know the cumulative effects of the improper renovations on the structure’s integrity. Without much more extensive inspections then normally conducted by code enforcement and engineering analysis, the danger was unknowable to the public authorities.

That day there were no questions the Chief could have asked, no decision by a company officer, no action by a firefighter that would have been reasonable and would have changed the outcome.

Wildland firefighters don’t face such unknowables.

There may be a lack of knowledge, but if so it is a failure of education and organization.

Weather is known, or can be found out, along with things like predicted times for wind shifts.

Terrain can be seen and reviewed on maps. Our locations, especially with today’s GPS handhelds, can be ascertained with certainty.

The fire location can be seen, or scouted to find out.

The fuels it is burning in are known, and we can make good assumptions on how they will behave based on past experience and knowledge of recent weather patterns (1 hour / 10 hour / 100 hour fuels), climate (droughts), and disturbances (insect damage, ice storms, etc).

Unlike the structural side of the world were we must accept that certain events are unforeseeable, the challenge on the wildfire side is to make sure we impart the knowledge of where to gather the information needed and how to apply it to decision making.

That does not mean we can eliminate deaths and injuries on the wildland side; we can and should still take risks. Wildland situations are still complex, and people will make earnest judgement calls that sometimes turn out wrong simply because humans are fallible beings. But the elements that go into making good decisions that usually turn out well are there for us to see or find out.

This becomes even more challenging in a place like southern New England where the vast majority of our wildland fires are pretty benign and simply not dangerous — a breeding ground for complacency, lack of experience in critical situations, and putting training for handling such situations very low on the priority list.

Categories: History, Strategy Tags:

Comparing fuels…

April 12th, 2010 No comments

I never realized how extensive the pitch pine / scrub oak community is along the Connecticut and Rhode Island border, particularly in Coventry and West Greenwich along the state line. This area is probably around 10 square miles. As this was a major portion of the May, 1942 fires one can imagine the fire spread that would have occurred in such an isolated area. An old rail line runs roughly along the northern side of this pitch pine forest; as the arsonist was a railroad section foreman we’re left to wonder at this time how much that played a roll. Also interesting is why this area is still pitch pine — was it always? Why is the Connecticut side more mature? Was it better attention on the Connecticut side towards re-planting with white pines and more active fire suppression post 1942? Is it simply a difference in soils?

From a firefighting perspective, the difficulties posed by acre after acre of this:
Audobon Reservation, Newport Road (?), Western Coventry, RI

Compared to more typical New England mixed forests:
Hampton, CT 7 April 2010

Is fairly dramatic.

In the latter case, it is relatively easy to construct control lines even if occasional obstacles must be bypassed. A crew using a backpack leaf blower could build quite a bit of line quickly, reinforcing it with a burn out to the body of the main fire.

In the former, in the pitch pine with a thick story of underbrush (probably blueberry or huckleberry; I’ll have to re-visit the area this summer when the leaves are out to tell for sure)…building control lines away from the fire will be much, much more difficult. Backpack blowers are out, at best Council fire rakes might help. With the higher flame heights from brush compared to hardwood leaf litter a wider line is probably needed as well as making a burn out a more risky tactic to try.

Except along established control lines such as roads, it would seem the best tactic is the hot and dirty work of directly attacking the fire along the flanks, hopefully with a hoseline! Lacking that, then with indian tanks and hand tools while making slow progress compared to simple leaf litter, despite having a fire that is burning hotter, higher, and faster to deal with.

Fire Ponds

April 21st, 2009 No comments

Many fire ponds were constructed during the Great Depression to provide a ready source of water to fight fires.

Created to ease the financial strains of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, employed over 3,000,000 young men* between 1933-1942.  The 21 camps in Connecticut provided barrack-style food and housing along with a small monthly stiped.  The men worked o a variety of conservation projects including forest road construction, recreation area development and fire suppression.

A system of fire ponds, each holding a minimum of 7500 gallons of water, served as the main water source for fire suppression in the state forests.  This particular fire pond was probably built by enrollees from Camp Connor in Stafford Springs circa 1936.   The goal of building one pond per 100 acres on state land and one pond per 200 acres on private land was curtailed by the onset of WWII and the closing of the CCC camps.  By 1941, the CCC had completed 404 water holes in the 80,000 acres of state forest and 269 holes on private land.

This fire pond, restored to the original conditionin 2001, illustrates one of several designs utilized by the CCC.

Many unrestored fire ponds can discovered along forest roads throughout Shenipsit and Nipmuck State Forest.

From this sign:

Sign at the Mountain Laurel Sanctuary, Union, CT

Sign at the Mountain Laurel Sanctuary, Nipmuck State Forest, Union, CT

This is the pond it refers to:

Fire pond at Mountain Laurel Sanctuary, Nipmuck State Forest, Union, CT

Fire pond at Mountain Laurel Sanctuary, Nipmuck State Forest, Union, CT

This is another style of pond:

Fire Pond in Natchaug State Forest, Hampton, CT

Fire Pond in Natchaug State Forest, Hampton, CT

My observation is these ponds would have been most useful during the spring fire season, filled by snow melt and spring rains.  In a normal summer today these are dry by mid-summer, and thus not available in the summer and fall fire seasons during a drought.  I doubt this would have been any different seventy years ago.

They would have been useful for filling Indian tanks, as well as portable pumps and hose.

Today forestry agencies around the U.S. continue to improve rural water supplies, often under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rural Community Fire Protection cooperative program they administer.

RI Rural Community Fire Protection Program
RC&D [Resource Conservation & Development] partnered with the DEM- Division of Forest Environment to provide rural communities with fire protection assistance. In 2006 RC&D designed, produced, and
distributed 200 Dry Hydrant Guidance Manuals to local fire departments, held four workshops across the state on the program and received 19 applications for dry hydrants from six rural fire departments. When installed these hydrants will improve fire protection for an estimated 13,000 residents of these communities.

Rhode Island Resource Conservation & Development 2006 Annual Report

These static water supplies are considerably larger then the old hand dug fire ponds of the CCC, designed to support both wildland and structural fire protection.  This is a representative dry hydrant installation:

[Photo of the Hampton hydrant will go here, once I find it...]

There is a couple ways to estimate coverage for the old water holes.

One is we can assume a square grid with perfectly even distribution.  100 acres would be approximately 2,000 feet square.  From the center of that square to a side would be 1,000′ while reaching a corner would take 1,400′.

Another is to use a circle centered on the water hole.  A circle 1,200′ in radius would cover approximately 100 acres, while a circle 1,650′ in radius would cover approximately 200′ acres.

* For perspective, the U.S. population in 1940 was 134 Million, of which 5.6 Million were males between the age of 20 and 24.  A proportionately sized program today would employ some 7 Million men, with about 2 Million in active service at any given time.

Maine Forest Service replaces contractors with Civil Air Patrol

April 20th, 2009 No comments

Civil Air Patrol pilots on wildfire patrols

,
Sunday, April 19, 2009

AUGUSTA – One of the nation’s best-kept secrets is getting some air time in Maine this year.

In a brand-new program starting this month, prompted by substantial budget cuts, the Maine Forest Service has contracted with the Civil Air Patrol to conduct fire-watch patrol flights on five statewide routes.

“We’re excited about this,” said Kent Nelson, the service’s fire prevention specialist. “This is really going to help out both our agencies and hopefully reduce the amount of wildfires.”

With more than 56,000 members nationwide, the nonprofit Civil Air Patrol is the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. Founded in 1941, the air patrol originally assisted the War Department by defending the nation’s coastline during World War II.

Its volunteers perform homeland security, disaster relief and counter-drug missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies, according to Civil Air Patrol Web sites.

Members also play a leading role in aerospace education and serve as mentors to the nearly 22,000 young people participating in its cadet programs.

“Certainly, the Civil Air Patrol is going to do a good job,” said Maine Forest Service chief pilot John Knight of Old Town. “We have no doubt about that.”

Nelson said Knight got the idea last year to use the resources of the air patrol after learning that other states have been using it for smoke- and air-detection flights.

Maine Wing Civil Air Patrol Lt. Mary Storey of Auburn agrees it’s a timely idea.

“It will be cost-effective and save Maine a lot of money,” Storey said. “Maine says they’re broke and we fly free. Whereas in the past, (the Forest Service) used to take a big plane up at $1,000 an hour, with us, it’s $100 an hour.”

Knight figured using Maine’s Civil Air Patrol on a call-when-needed basis as opposed to a general contract would save, on average, $57,000 a year. That’s based on the average flight time through private contracting in the past decade.

Civil Air Patrol flights will be frequent in the spring when fire danger is high, with fewer in the summer when lush grasses reduce the fire risk. Flights will increase again in the fall, as the fire danger rises.

Prior to using aircraft starting in the 1930s to find wildfires, for many years the Forest Service relied on a network of triangulating fire towers across the state.

“The beauty of the fire patrol over that system, of course, is that you can fly right over the fire and give the exact latitude and longitude and also help direct whoever’s responding – whether it be a fire department or one of our rangers – to exactly where the fire is and which road to take and where the closest water source is,” Knight said.

Savings-wise, Knight said, the last 17 towers closed by the service were costing $450,000 a year to staff and maintain.

In 1991 or 1992, three airplane fire patrol contracts for the same area cost $45,000 in the first year, he said.

An even greater savings is expected to be realized by using Civil Air Patrol planes and pilots instead of private contractors to fly five 250-mile routes instead of nine shorter routes to cover the whole state.

When Maine has any kind of high fire danger, air patrol pilots and planes will be used in tandem with state aircraft and those from other state agencies, such as state police, marine patrol, and fish and wildlife, officials said.

Maine’s Civil Air Patrol has 17 volunteer mission pilots who fly the small red, white and blue airplanes.

“We’re often called the best-kept secret,” pilot Warren King of New Auburn said, as he examined one of two Cessna 282 planes tied to the tarmac at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.

“We’re trying to let the public know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Storey said. “It’s all for them.”

Article from the Sun Journal.  There’s also this companion piece which  interviews a CAP pilot.

If I’m reading the article right, the Maine Fire Service has replaced 9 contract aircraft with 5 Civil Air Patrol aircraft, which fly longer routes.

I was able to pull some ballpark figures out of it though which seem reasonable:

Per-tower cost, 1991:  $26,470.
Figure for staffing, electricty, telephone, maintenance, etc that doesn’t sound unreasonable.  I’m assuming that’s paying someone to work fulltime for six months or so, say April 1 — Nov 1, not sure what you do with them when it’s raining.  But it’s not like you’ll find many people who are healthy enough to climb an 80′ tower but will agree to only work part of the year, and then only as needed, for may fifteen bucks an hour, and won’t go batshit crazy looking at the woods all day long.
3% inflation gets you to $43,750/tower/year in 2009.

Aircraft cost, 1992:  $45,000.
One aircraft replaces about 6 fire towers.  (You can read the article as saying all three planes together only cost $45,000 but I think that has to be a grammatical mistake.)
3% inflation gets you to $74,400/aircraft/year in 2010.

That inflation adjustment I made is pretty close to the low end of Ontario’s cost, which in 2006 was $87,750 Canadian ($325/hour x 270 hours/year — http://fire.feric.ca/36502006/DetectionWorkshop/McAlpineDetection.ppt)

Doing the math another way, they also say the CAP will save $57,000 a year, and the CAP charge to the state is $100/hour.  270 hours x $100/hour = $27,000… $27,000 + $57,000 = $84,000…right in the ballpark of what Ontario spends.

The purpose to towers and aircraft are to find fires faster so they’re kept smaller — using less manhours, fuel, etc to control and consuming less resources like timber or homes.

We know we don’t typically have fires in Connecticut that threaten many buildings (not that it can’t happen), and we know we don’t normally have fires that truly threaten timber.  So we can’t realistically talk about “losses prevented” in Connecticut today.

So we’re talking about having to save marginal extra expenses — Overtime for DEP guys out on the fire line, payments to volunteer fire companies for assisting DEP, fuel, etc.

That would mean a fire tower saving about $45,000 a year in extra costs, or an aircraft saving about $84,000 (private) or $27,000 (CAP) in a year.  We’d need about 15 towers to cover Connecticut, or one aircraft.

I wish the math wasn’t so stark, ’cause I really do think fire towers are cool.

But we’d need to return to a day of a much more persistent, much more serious forest fire problem then we have today to make them worthwhile.

More on fire tower economics from Ontario:
http://fire.feric.ca/36152002/WorkshopPresentation/Economics.ppt

http://www.forestry.utoronto.ca/courses/jfg475f/detectnotes.pdf

http://fire.feric.ca/36502006/DetectionWorkshop/McAlpineDetection.ppt

Categories: Maine, New England, Strategy, Tactics, Tools Tags:

Be Prepared!

April 9th, 2009 No comments

I went for a walk today to take some photographs as a follow up to the prescribed burn Pomfret carried out in the Audobon nature sanctuary last year, burning a small pitch pine grove.

Pomfret prescribed burn

Pomfret prescribed burn

My full photo essay is here.

After walking half a mile to the location, I took out my camera and as it was powering up I wondered if I had put a memory card in it…then the screen came up blue with red text explaining I was a moron.

But that fits this topic well — be prepared!  You’re an officer headed to the call.  You see the smoke, you’re sizing it up in your mind — ok, no problem, looks about half a mile in, we have keys for the gate, we’ll just drive in with the forestry truck and pickups, heck the farm lanes will hold the weight of an Engine-Tanker if we need more water.  Nothing special.

You go down into the parking area, and your first sign of trouble is the two new 24″ culverts sitting along the farm lane used to access the area.  You walk through the pedestrian gate and down the lane a few feet to confirm your fear and see this:

Washed out lane

Washed out lane

You’re not even got get ATVs across that unless you start digging with picks and shovels.  Good news, water supply is not an issue.  Bad news, it’s going to be a long afternoon.  Time to go back to your pickup and look at the aerial photograph printouts from Google Earth of your district that are in your map book and see if there is a way to get vehicles in closer.  Not time to hit the panic button, but a bit of pre-planning driving around the district in the early spring would’ve avoided the surprise.

With the map book you have a cheat sheet for hose lays and you look up that 2,500′ of 1.5″ synthetic jacket weeping forestry hose, 50psi nozzle pressure, 125psi from a portable pump, will deliver around 40gpm.  Guess that’s not too bad if we can’t drive in any closer.

Categories: Prescribed Fire, Strategy, Tactics Tags:

Basics of Fire Control: Strats & Tacs…a primer

March 27th, 2009 No comments

There simply is no way to turn a subject as dry as establishing the definition of strategy, tactic, and a few related terms into something fun, exciting, and interesting…so it’s best to just plow into the subject and get past it.

Strategies and tactics are ideas of how to achieve something, tasks are a set of activities that transform an idea into an achievement, while techniques are specific actions used to accomplish a task.

A Strategy is a plan to achieve a goal. The term, “strategic goal” is often used a reminder of what the plan is meant to accomplish.

A Tactic is a mental picture, a concept, of what actions are needed to accomplish that goal.

A Task is a set of activities which transform the mental concept of a tactic into actual accomplishments.

A Technique is a specific action taken in carrying out a task.

Skills are the ability due to education, experience, and natural qualities to establish strategy, conceive tactics, initiate tasks, and execute techniques efficiently.

Categories: Strategy, Tactics Tags:

Typical…and not so typical…terrain and fuel load

March 26th, 2009 No comments

I found these pictures online recently that portray the very most common forest fire we find in southern New England today — a low, relatively slow fire burning leaf litter along the forest floor.  These fires are ideally suited to the six man hand tool team.

Greenfield, MA 23 April 2008

Greenfield, MA 23 April 2008

Middlebury, CT April 2008

Middlebury, CT 18 April 2008

The biggest risk with fires in this terrain and fuel is they are so common complacency sets in, and that will likely lead to injuries or deaths in the future when there is a failure to recognize much more hazardous situations when it is encountered.  Click for more information on the Greenfield or Middlebury fires.

Even forests that have remained stable for decades can change in character overnight.

In December, 2008 a major ice storm impacted much of New England particularly the Berkshire Hills, north Central Massachusetts, and Southern New Hampshire.  Note in the above photos the minimal amount of fuel in the form of small branches, logs, and such other then the leaves.  Contrast that to the photos below taken in Paxton, MA area in the wake of the ice storm — for the next several years they will be facing a much higher fuel load on the forest floor until the debris rots, it will be much more labor intensive to access the fires and then construct fire lines and overhaul hot spots.  With the tree canopy shattered, the sunlight will encourage brushy thickets to grow up and many of the trees will die becoming punky snags which will need to be cut down if they catch on fire.

Ice storm damage on woods road entering Worcester reservoir lands, Paxton, MA March 2009.

Woods road entering reservoir lands for the City of Worcester.

Ice storm damage, Paxton, MA

Ice storm damage, Paxton, MA March 2009

While not impossible for a team with Indian Tanks, rakes, and brooms to construct a fire line through, clearly they would have much more intense work to do.  More water — from hoses — will be needed to extinguish the extent of burning debris so sparks later don’t fly over fire lines, and power tools like chainsaws will save much labor in constructing those lines.  No matter what the preference in tools and tactics the areas hit hard by the ice storms will spend a lot more labor and time controlling fires over the next few years until the forests mature once again.

Historically New England has experienced severe forest fire problems in years following major disturbances by hurricanes and ice storms, and there’s no reason to not expect it to occur again in the wake of this storm.

Categories: Disturbances, Ice Storm, Strategy, Tactics Tags:

Basics of Fire Control: Hand Tools

March 24th, 2009 No comments

Figthing forest fires is simple.  Laborious, hot, smokey, dusty.  But simple — separate the fire from the fuel, or cool the fire so it no longer burns.  And do so in a way you don’t get yourself injured by falling, having something hit you, or getting burned.

While the hand tools used today to control forest fires are simple, the tools — if they even deserve the name tool — from back in 1908 were downright primitive.

Wardens may destroy fences, plow land, or, in an emergency, set back fires to
check any fire. (Back fires should only be started at a road, brook, or other
natural barrier.) Ground fires can usually be put out by beating with wet sacks,
cedar boughs, or similiar implements.  Much effective work can be done throwing
loose earth on the advancing flames. Of course, near brooks and ponds, water is
the best fire extinguisher. By raking leaves and dead matter away from advancing
fire it can often be stopped for lack of material to burn. Plowing one or two
furrows ahead of a fire will often stop it, unless the wind is very strong.
(From Connecticut's 1908 edition of "Instructions to Fire Wardens",
included in Connecticut Forestry Pamphlets Volume III)

Bureaucracy being the same in all ages, of the 24 pages of the pamphlet that paragraph was the only directions given about how to put out a forest fire.  The rest dealt with organizational issues, like how to submit bills and complete time cards.

I’m comfortable assuming cedar boughs haven’t been used in many years in Connecticut, although back when I was in college I came across a grass fire threatening to extend to a chicken coop which I beat out with my nomex fire coat.

Generally there are four hand tools now used in Connecticut — a backpack pump commonly called an “Indian Tank” after a brand name used by the D. B. Smith Company that popularized that tool, the Council Tool forestry rake, and either bamboo brooms or the collapsible metal rake designed by Roscommon Equipment Center.  All those tools, and organizations, are worth their own future posts so I won’t go into much detail here on them.

A six man hand crew that has a little bit of training, discipline, and is in decent shape can fight a surprisingly large fire with these simple tools. Two firefighters carrying Indian Tanks, followed by two carrying rakes, followed by two carrying brooms work together to knock down the flames directly and construct a fire line.

On most fires in Connecticut a direct attack is used, where the actions of firefighters directly extinguish the flames. Normally this is also in conjunction with an aggressive effort to get a crew to the part of the fire being driven by the wind (the “head”) while other teams secure the flanks. This combination minimizes the size of the area the fire, and is usually the appropriate strategy and tactics given our typical resources, terrain, vegetation, and weather.

Working from the “black” (the burned area of the fire so the heat and smoke is being blown away from the team) the lead Indian Tank works quickly to knock the flames down as fast as he can.  The second Indian Tank will follow him, spritzing small flames left in the wake of the first firefighter.

Following the Indian Tanks are the firefighters with Council Tool fire rakes who cut light brush and pull the sticks and the bulk of leaves back into the burned area.  Properly maintained they cut well since the triangular teeth are actually cutting sections for sickle bar mowers. The rakers start their pull from just outside the fire area, bringing any embers hiding under the leaves along with a little bit unburned materials into the black.  Sometimes thick brush or large logs will make them have to build a fire line entirely away from the black, a situation that requires extra policing later on. Behind the rakers are sweepers using bamboo brooms or collapsible metal rakes to sweep a clean line clear down to dirt that’s a foot or two wide.

On the rare large fires where the crew will be working far from the trucks or known water supplies, it’s a good idea to have them hike in all wearing Indian Tanks, as well as an axe and shovel. The extra tanks and tools can then be left in a tool depot near where the crew goes to work.

For contrast with this typical or traditional Connecticut hand crew, this is a description of a Pennsylvania hand crew employing their typical tactic on larger fires of an indirect attack where they build a fire line then light a backburn, using a similar set of tools:

The forest fire crew constructs a control line, by hand, making a barrier around
the fire to check its growth. Construction of a control line should always begin
on a safe anchor point such as a road, power line, lake, stream, or rock slide
or any other natural or man made structure which provides a hard stop against
fire. The crew is led by the Trail Blazer who clears the initial path for the
control line. He uses a Sanvik brush knife or brush hook to clear small
underbrush and low hanging tree branches. He is followed by a team of rakemen
who use fire rakes to remove the surface fuels down to mineral soil. There are
normally 10 or more rakemen on a crew. The most common method used by the
rakemen is the One Lick. In this method each rakeman takes one lick with his
rake and then moves on. Each rakeman behind him does the same making the line
deeper and wider as they go. They are followed by a sweeper who uses a fire
broom to remove any excess leaves, twigs, and other small fuels from the line
and from around trees near the line. Following this, the torch man "burns out"
the fuels which lie between the control line and the fire. He is followed by one
or more crewmen with backpack tanks who are charged with controlling the
burn-out. In this way, a control line can be constructed in nearly any place at
any time.
(From Pennsylvania Forest Fire Warden Association's District 17 website,
retrieved 24 March 2009)

While an indirect attack by building a control line away from the fire and backfiring is still rare in Connecticut, some of their tools are migrating into our area.  For the last couple years the Connecticut DEP has offered backpack leaf blowers on their purchasing schedule to local departments — these machines are popular in Pennsylvania for taking the place of the sweepers.  It will be interesting to see how Connecticut tactics change over the next few years as we continue to trade ideas with other states.

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