I kind of knew that three whole springs without a forest fire along the Norfolk-Southern’s grade over the continental divide was pushing things. Hoped maybe their relatively new-found practice of carefully checking their brake connections BEFORE heading uphill into the ‘loops’ might become a habit. It’s been raining pretty steady, and yesterday it snowed. Not more than an inch, though, and that was melted by noon.
It’s that period of early spring when the wind has been blowing and the greenery hasn’t made its appearance yet but the sap is running, when molten-hot metal from what passes for brake pads on train cars can find some handy tinder and quickly set the dry leaves ablaze. It can actually be good for the forest – the older, established trees can take a bit of bark-char, and the ashes help balance out the acidity of red clay soil. Trick is to not let them get out of hand. Back when they were clear-cutting these mountains and carrying out the logs by steam trains, the fires got so hot they sterilized the soil to more than a foot underground. As abundant as these mountains are, it took decades to recover.
Grandson noticed the smoky haze in the late afternoon, shortly before the spotter plane arrived to circle overhead and let us know the fire was just over the tracks along the back side of the property. We hiked on around the ridge to see what was what, found Old Fort’s Finest [VFD] already on the tracks and in the woods, on the job. In years past they’ve staged from our place, since we have direct access to the forest, and I always like them parking that nifty tanker truck right next to the cabin for the duration. Heck, I’ll make coffee for them all night long if they make sure my house doesn’t burn! But this one didn’t start on our side of the tracks or jump them, so we were in no serious danger and they used the scout camp access road instead.
The first bladder-chopper showed up about 6 pm, the second about half an hour later. Our fat white ducks Gladys and Amelia definitely didn’t like these fat, yellow, low-flying and incredibly noisy things one little bit. They quickly stashed themselves underneath the back deck to be invisible to these very strange raptors, and complained incessantly every time we got buzzed on their way from the lake at Camp Greer to the fire line. It was on the private hunting land immediately north of us and encompassing some acres of state game land just to the west, but didn’t get as far as the National Forest boundary on the other side of the northwestern cove. It was moving steadily east along the cove ridge, toward the railroad wall.
Of course I sent hub out to take pictures, being as he is a professional photographer and all. This one – which I particularly like – was taken with the camera resting on the rail as the wall heads into the ridge cut. Our property is on the left side of those tracks, so we do have some appreciation for the sheer height and width of the rock rail bed that forms the wall. It takes a darned hot fire and a really stiff wind to jump that firebreak!
As darkness began to fall the 50 or so firefighters on the line sent out for coffee and take-out dinners, catered by the railroad watchers in their nifty track-truck. The fire was halfway up to the top of the ridge by the time the spotter and helicopters had to shut down for the night, so they didn’t bring the fire train usually kept in the rail yard in town. Nice multi-hose pumper contraption on a flat car between two tankers – one with water, the other with chemical retardant. The scheduler was getting antsy by the time the truck made it back to the line with food and drinks, kept calling to find out when they could start moving trains again. It was kind of humorous, since the fire by then had crept back down the mountainside and caused the firefighters to have to scramble straight up the loose rocks of the wall to get out of its way. Below is a shot of that bit of temporary excitement, from the 5th ‘hole’ of our disc golf course, called “High Springs” because 1) it’s a high point on the property, and 2) someone many years before us left a metal bedspring up there that a tree now nearly 3 feet in circumference grew in the middle of.
It definitely looks exciting, but as usual it was mostly leaf and deadfall that burned. This morning there wasn’t even any smoke left, and by this time next month the forest floor will be even more thickly covered with greenery than it was before. Minus a few of the smaller saplings, which need to be thinned occasionally anyway, and maybe now that the leaves are ash we won’t get any further fires that close this year. We’re hoping, at any rate!