Monday, December 6, 2010


I took these photos during a controlled prairie burn in 2004.
It all started innocently enough.
The sun shone. The temperature was relatively warm, for December.
I was just doing routine chores.
That included dumping the ash bucket. The last time I cleaned the stove was 24 hours ago. All of the coals should be cold.
As usual, I walked a few steps into the unmowed grass at the edge of our woods to dump the ash.
Fortunately, I decided to work outside for a bit, to finish putting the asparagus to bed for the winter. Otherwise I wouldn't have seen the flames as soon as they began dancing and leaping in the brisk wind. Who knows how long it would have taken me to notice the flames if I had gone back indoors.
Redcedar trees burn as if they have been doused with
After nearly 20 years as a reporter for a small town newspaper I had heard enough fire safety tips and talked to enough fire chiefs to know that the first thing I was suppose to do is call 911. The fire chiefs all told me that they would rather respond and find out you put out the fire yourself than to have the fire get way out of control before they got there. And upon seeing the flames, I contemplated running inside and calling 911 before trying to snuff the flames that were itching to burn down my woods.
However, if I took time for that, there would be no chance of me snuffing out the flames before they reached a pile of finished compost, several cedar trees (which catch fire explosively) and a pile of wood for burning in the stove next winter. If the fire moved into the woods on the steep hillside, fighting it would be incredibly difficult for our volunteer fire department. So I decided to take care of it myself.
In a situation like this (did I mention the brisk wind and dry conditions?) split second timing is critical. So that thought process made a lot of intuitive leaps, for expediancy's sake, and actually went more like this...

A 2004 controlled burn at Snyder Prairie near Mayetta. It is
one of few remaining virgin tall grass prairies and is
managed by the Grassland Heritage Foundation.
"Call 911?"
"Fight fire 'self?"
"No time call."
"Fight fire!"
I began to run toward the fire, thinking I could stomp it out with my heavy boots. Then I remembered the shovel I'd had in my hands a few moments earlier. So I ran back and got the shovel.
Wearing insulated boots and a heavy coat is like gaining 10 pounds and the run was a difficult, plodding sort. But it wasn't far.
I beat the edges of the burning area with my shovel. Tiny flames went sneaking through the short, sparse grass between the unmowed area and the house. I wasn't too worried. They would die out before they reached the house. Still, I beat and stomped them, too.
When I felt that the fire was sufficiently slowed by the beating, I ran (plodded) the short distance up a steep slope to the back of the house, pulled the hose off the rack, connected it and turned it on, then ran to the fire with the other end.
How ***# long does it take for water to travel through 150 feet of hose, anyway? I checked the connections and employed the shovel some more. Finally water came running out of the hose.
Within a few minutes all flames were gone. I wetted the perimeter of the burned area well, just in case any sparks or coals were hiding, waiting for me to leave so they could come out and play. I also drenched the pile of ash that started the whole thing.
Well. Wasn't that exciting?
I quickly finished my job at the asparagus bed and went inside. I dropped my smoke-scented clothes in the laundry and took a shower -- which included washing the smoke from my hair.
I can now add "fights fires" to the list of things I do around here.
No more will I assume that 24 hours is long enough for hot coals to die. Fortunately, this was a rather cheap lesson for me. Learn from my error.
And, just to keep the fire chief off my back, if this happens to you, call 911;)
This is the burned area behind my house. Fortunately, pretty small, in spite of
a stiff wind that blew as the flames danced.

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