Module 16: Wildfire and Your Woodland

Lesson 8 - Case Study 2

Harold had felt pleased with himself. He had repaired the roof on his camp yesterday, just above where the squirrels had been making their way in and playing havoc with the plastic food containers in his cupboard. Some metal flashing had solved the squirrel problem, he hoped, and a half-dozen new shingles had sealed the deal. Now he hoped there would be no more leaks and even fewer squirrels in his small hunting camp.

Spring cleaning was a necessary chore. Harold didn’t use the camp much during the winter, except when some friends showed up on their snowmobiles and asked to use the camp for an overnight trip. He was happy to share, despite the squirrel problem.

His day had started by clearing some of the brush around the camp with his chainsaw—mostly small fir tees that had begun to encroach on the walls. He had worked at clearing brush all morning and the large pile of brush showed something for his efforts. Harold marvelled that there were still patches of snow in some places—it had been a fairly open winter and spring had seemed to come early.

Before setting out for his camp, Harold had checked with the local Department of Natural Resources office for a burnin permit. When he was told he didn’t need one, he wondered why, since he could always remember needing a permit once April arrived. The forest technician on duty had showed him a computer screen with the new BurnSafe map on it. Most of the province was coloured yellow, meaning Harold could burn after 7 pm and before 8 am at his camp property in Hants County. That was fine with him, since he was spending the weekend at the camp and this was only Thursday. Thanking the forest technician and promising her that he would recheck the map each day, Harold went on his way.

By Saturday Harold had cleared and piled the brush, and was looking forward to a quiet, restful Sunday. Both Friday and Saturday had been warm, windy days. He figued that things would soon start to green up in the woods.

He had a supper of fishcakes and beans before heading out to check the brush pile. Lots of brush to burn, he chuckled as he crumpled a newspaper and sparked his lighter. The paper caught the flame and crinkled as it burned. White smoke curled through the forest canopy as the flame flared and—just as promptly—died.

Well, thought Harold, he didn’t have much other paper apart from the essential kind in his little outhouse. He went over and picked up his fuel can, which was still half full of chainsaw gas. Liberally sprinkling the brush pile with gas, Harold once again flicked his lighter. Wow—that was better! With a roar, the pile erupted into flame, the fir needle snapping and sparking as they caught.

It took Harold less than two minutes to realize that he had made a mistake. The brush pile was quickly beginning to burn out of control. The dry carpet of leaves on the forest floor began burning in all directions and the flame soon reached other vegetation. Overhead, the shaft of rising heat and smoke created a current of wind that swirled among the softwood branches.

Harold wasn’t unprepared. He had a shovel handy and began swatting the escaping ring of fie, beating the leaves and shrubs that were now burning merrily. As soon as he had one side under control, another side would flare up, threatening to reach the surrounding softwood trees, which Harold had thinned just two years ago.

The brush pile was nearly consumed now, but there were other things to think about. A small fir tee caught fie, and another, sputtering and popping as the fie ate the dry needles. On the other side of the expanding circle of flame, the fie crept slowly toward the camp. Harold pounded the shovel furiously about him, realizing that the fie was getting well beyond his control.

Remembering something he had read in a booklet on forest fies, he started digging like a madman, prising the dark earth from the ground. He threw the soil on the fie, and one finger of flame disappeared. Harold continued, the sweat pouring down his face, his heart hammering, throwing soil as quickly as he could upon any flame he could  see on the leading edge of the fie. Sweet mercy—he was gaining ground!

For the next 20 minutes, Harold alternated between swatting flames and smothering them with soil. Once or twice a smouldering clump of leaves would flare up and threaten to spread, but he reached them in time. Anywhere he could see smoke he threw soil, extinguishing the embers before they became flame.

Exhausted beyond measure, Harold leaned on his shovel and looked around. Blackened leaves were practically beneath his camp walls. On the other side the flames had stopped mere metres from his thinning; with the dry cut underbrush, the fie would have raced through the thinning. From there it was only a short distance to his neighbour’s property and hunting trailer; beyond that, a hundred acres of softwood and then a dozen houses. Good grief. So close to disaster, he thought.

To make sure there were no orphan embers, Harold walked through the brush and trees around his camp in expanding circles. He saw where one flying burning leaf had landed and now lay slowly smoking near an old stump. Harold put two shovelfuls of soil on it, just to be sure.

He realized now that over the past two days, the Fire Weather Index had risen beyond the yellow zone and into the red zone, on the map the forest technician had shown him. Harold knew he should have paid more attention to the clues around him, particularly to the warm breezy weather. He knew he should have checked the BurnSafe map again, before he ever lit the fire.

Harold was grateful he had had a shovel handy, but he knew he should have had more fie control tools at hand. A back tank ideally, a bucket of water or two at the very least. But the gear would not have been necessary if he had gauged the situation more closely. Much of what he should have done was only common sense, Harold concluded.

A rumble in the distance made him glance skyward: rain tonight. I could sure use that, he thought.