Fire on Cape Cod: Massachusetts Military Reservation Burns (Part 1)

By far the biggest burns we participated in this past year were a pair carried out on the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR). A base that now goes by at least three names depending on who you talk to about it. Over two full days the prescribed burns on the MMR burned ~330 acres, both days we had highly active fire behavior, culminating with flame lengths somewhere around 100 feet high and a smoke column that (apparently) was visible from across the bay in Provincetown (35-40 miles). This entry is going to focus on the first of the two Rx Burns.

During the first of the two burns we were primarily a holding group, our job was to watch one flank of the burn unit and ensure that burning embers in the smoke didn’t light spot fires outside of the unit. What we were able to do if and when those embers did cross the line depended heavily on what the fuel type behind us consisted of. When we had our backs to a large grassy field, we were generally able to stomp out the fires before they grew much larger than a campfire. When we had thick brush or trees to our backs we instead called out for help and focused on staying out of the way of the brush-breakers as they barreled through the underbrush to put out the spot.

One of the brush breakers. The smallest of them could push through a tree with an 8 inch DBH (diameter at breast height), the largest looked like mack-trucks that the folk's in the Mad Max movies had gotten their hands on.

One of the brush breakers. The smallest of them could push through a tree with an 8 inch DBH (diameter at breast height), the largest looked like mack-trucks that the folks in the Mad Max movies had gotten their hands on.

From the first burn. Our spread out holding line.

From the first burn. Our spread out holding line. Thirty seconds after this picture was taken the smoke column rising into the sky pulled a U-turn and descended onto us. The embers it carried lit the grassy field behind us on fire (keeping me too busy to take more pictures).

Luckily for us, the smoke was mostly heading in the other direction, which meant that for a large portion of the day we really didn’t have much to do except watch the fire work its way through the burn unit.

Most of the flames within the first burn were relatively small, 2-4 feet, and were carried by litter and brush.

Most of the flames within the first burn were relatively small, 2-4 feet, and were carried by litter and brush.

Fire behavior on the first burn was largely mild to moderate. There were a few instances of multi-tree torching, but complete stand replacement (when all of the trees in a clump burn and die in the same event) was within the bounds of the burn’s prescription. There are decent ecological reasons for allowing stand replacement, and since this burn was at least partially “for the bunnies,” the burn bosses were happy to let stands that were well within the perimeter ignite.

More line holding, this time with denser fuels on both sides of us.

More line holding, this time with denser fuels on both sides of us.

Igniting the final strip.

Igniting the final strip.

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This first burn covered around 100 acres, a bit over half of what we’d hoped to do that day, shifting winds and caution kept us from hitting our mark. Day two, which occurred a few weeks later, would more than make up for the day’s potential shortfalls, though. I’ll get to that story next.

Prescribed Fire on Cape Cod: Pilgrim Heights

More pictures. This set comes from our first “larger” prescribed burn, carried out at Pilgrim Heights in Truro.

Our test fire / lunch break

Our test fire / lunch break

Days when the atmosphere was relatively unstable (in this case shown by the clear blue skies) allowed the smoke to rise quickly off the ground.

Days when the atmosphere was relatively unstable (in this case shown by the clear blue skies) allowed the smoke to rise quickly off the ground.

Instead of ringing this burn with a hose lay we relied upon a road that looped around the burn area, when it was time to mop up we drove two of our engines around the loop and hosed down everything we could reach.

Instead of ringing this burn with a hose lay we relied upon a road that looped around the burn area, when it was time to mop up we drove two of our engines around the loop and hosed down everything we could reach.

The next day we returned to the burn area to search it again for residual smoke. We did this every time we burned as an added precaution; embers are remarkably resilient and can smoke quietly for days (potentially reigniting an insufficiently burned area) if not dowsed.

The next day we returned to the burn area to search it again for residual smoke. We did this every time we burned as an added precaution; embers are remarkably resilient and can smoke quietly for days (potentially reigniting an insufficiently burned area) if not dowsed.

Prescribed Fires in the Spring

We were blessed with good, consistent weather all Spring. It was cool and dry, and over the course of the last few months we managed to get in over thirty (30) days of prescribed burning. I’m not exactly sure, but I think that the actual number is getting close to forty at this point.

A slowly advancing line of fire being carried through the leaf litter. The direction of the smoke shows that the fire is actually backing across the forest floor.

Watching a slowly advancing line of fire being carried through the leaf litter.

Much like the pile burning over the winter, the mechanics of broadcast burning quickly became business as usual. Our standard operating procedure relied heavily on setting up looping hose-lays around the burn area before even lighting a test fire. While this strategy takes a little while to set up, it also greatly increases the safety of the whole operation. And in the long run I’m sure it made our lives a great deal easier.

To set up those crucial loops we used inch-and-a-half hose as our trunk line and every 100 feet we split off a 50 foot length of 3/4 inch hose. Optimally, that meant that we had complete coverage of the burn perimeter. In actual practice that wasn’t always true, but adding more 3/4 inch hose to the end of existing lines was a trivial fix to a generally non-pressing problem.

After the hose lay was in place we’d light a test fire  and hold a briefing while watching it burn. Running the test fire simultaneously with the briefing is (apparently) somewhat atypical, but it did give us the advantage of being able to directly observe what the fire-behavior was likely to be before we began proper ignitions. It also sped up the day by getting two crucial steps in the burn process over with at once.

Test fire completed we’d go about the actual burn — using drip torches to lay down lines of fire, then using the 3/4 inch hose to extinguish one “edge” of the thickening line. The other edge was allowed to (hopefully slowly) burn across the unit until until it hit another line of fire coming from the other direction and went out from lack of fuel to burn.

Once there was no more active flame in the unit we’d use the hose ringing the area to soak everything still smoking, spending extra time making sure that rotting logs and other areas where embers could be smoldering were well and truly saturated.

After the last smoking embers were drowned we’d break up the hose-lay, roll everything up, pull our warning signs off the sides of the road, and head home.

Almost every prescribed fire we lit all year followed that same basic formula. Therefore, I’m going to just skip describing most of them and move on to posting the pictures and talking about the few times when things were — for one reason or another — different.

Laying down flanking lines of fire to increase a burns rate of spread.

Laying down flanking lines of fire to increase a burns rate of spread.

For instance, all of the pictures in this update were taken at a burn we carried out at an old Boy-Scout camp. The Boy Scouts sold the campsites to the Cape Cod National Seashore a few years back and our burn was step two in preparing the site to be used as a special group campground in the future. We also spent the better part of a day dismantling most of the old camp’s decrepit structures.

This burn was a little bit different since there were already defined paths all around the burn unit. Those paths were free of fuel (needles and brush in this case) and provided a secure enough fire-line that we didn’t need to surround the burn area with a hose lay. Instead we carried in 5-gallon backpack pumps and used them to discourage the flames from crossing the paths.

More flanking strips burning brightly in the smoky haze.

More flanking strips burning brightly in the smoky haze.

Reading list 2013: I’m falling behind.

So last year I was fortunate enough to have time to get a truly stupendous amount of reading done. I rolled into the final hours of 2012 with a hundred notches cut into my reading belt. That was awesome, but I realized early this year that I wasn’t going to be able to repeat the feat.

Nevertheless, I think I’m making decent progress so far:

  1. Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey. Chuck Palahniuk
  2. Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm (#12). Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  3. Wheel of Time: The Towers of Midnight (#13). Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  4. The Flight of the Iguana. David Quammen
  5. Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light (#14). Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  6. Railsea. China Mieville
  7. On Basilisk Station
  8. The Honor of the Queen. David Weber
  9. The Short Victorious War. David Weber
  10. Flag of Dishonor. David Weber
  11. Honor Among Enemies. David Weber
  12. In Enemy Hands. David Weber
  13. Echoes of Honor. David Weber
  14. Ashes of Victory. David Weber
  15. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. Lois McMaster Bujold
  16. Beyond Dinocalypse. Chuck Wendig
  17. Connectome: How the Brains Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. Sebestian Seung
  18. A Confederacy of Dunces. John Kennedy Toole
  19. The Casual Vacancy. J.K. Rowling

My initial goal this year was 75 (I had honestly thought that I was going to have much more time for reading that I actually do. According to that goal, I should actually have almost 44 books in that list. Oops.

I might still make it, though. My current service with Americorps Cape Cod will be over on August 1st. I have a ton of stories from the past few months to transcribe. I hope to be caught up (or at least close)  by move-out day here. I think that that goal is about as attainable as my reading target. After Americorps is done my life is going to get a bit strange, I have a few options for the remainder of the year, including some more fire work, some tree work, and some actual research.

Doane Rock: Prescribed Burn 5

Our fifth prescribed burn took place in the afternoon of the same day we conducted our fourth. Tactically, it was considerably more involved than the burn in the morning. Again, we split into two groups and walked the two flanks of the burn area laying down boxes of flame in tandem. However, this time we also lit point ignitions in the interior of the burn area. This strategy, coupled with our use of a backing fire throughout the burn, led to a much more complete burn than we achieved earlier in the day.

Our flank of the burn area. Like the first burn of the day we spread the flame by making consecutive rectangles of fire. Each rectangle, once its center had burned out, contributed to the line of black earth insulating the active fire from the area we did not intend to burn.

Our flank of the burn area. Like the first burn of the day we spread the flame by making consecutive rectangles of fire. Each rectangle, once its center had burned out, contributed to the line of black earth insulating the active fire from the area we did not intend to burn.

It was remarkable to me how efficient “drawing” the rectangles on the ground with the drip torch was at creating a solid black perimeter. Once the rectangle is drawn the heat from the flames causes the air in its center to rise quickly, air from outside the rectangle then blows in to fill the space. This constant inwards wind creates head-fires all around the rectangle. As I may have mentioned, head fires (fires in which the flames are bent over unburned fuels) burn faster (though less completely) than backing fires. Since the rectangle strategy creates a ring of head-fires, it creates the desired black perimeter faster than the alternative.

The slowly advancing flame front was carefully guided around the botanical signposts within the burn site.

The slowly advancing flame front was carefully guided around the botanical signposts within the burn site.

The alternative to the rectangle strategy is simply lighting a long line of fire using the drip torch. On the one hand you use less than half the fuel, but on the other it doesn’t burn nearly as quickly (nor, in my incredibly limited experience, so well).

This is what our flank of the burn looked like after the fires had been put completely out. This burn, because we relied on a backing fire rather than a head fire, removed more of the fuel (the dead wood, leaves, and flammable loam) than the first fire of the day did.

This is what our flank of the burn looked like after the fires had been put completely out. This burn, because we relied on a backing fire rather than a head fire, removed more of the fuel (the dead wood, leaves, and flammable loam) than the first fire of the day did.

Hopefully, now that Winter is gone (at least as far as the calendar is concerned) we’ll be able to do more of this, it beats the snot out of shoveling.

More than just a pile: Prescribed Burn 4

As I’ve waxed more than  is probably necessary about in the past few posts, we’ve been in a bit of a work-rut lately. The truth of the matter is that wintertime is when burning piles makes the most sense and so we took advantage of the often snow-covered ground as much as we were able. Making and burning piles every day had a few notable advantages, it gave those of us who needed it (myself very much included) ample time to practice using and maintaining our chainsaws, it allowed us to stay warm while being fantastically productive during the cold winter months, and it made me pretty much impervious to the smell of own hair burning. Take that last one as you will.

At any rate, although there are plenty of great things about burning piles, it really just isn’t the same as helping with a proper prescribed burn, so when I found out that we’d be returning to that sort of job today I was thrilled.

After collecting everything we’d need for the day and donning an extra layer of protective gear (beyond what we wore every day this winter) We traveled to the Doane Rock area in Eastham to await our exact destination and final instructions. It turns out that the Cape Cod National seashore has more than a few burn plots already established in that area, and we weren’t sure exactly where we’d be working first.
Once we established our objective (and walked around the perimeter as a group) we split into two teams and began using drip torches to burn strips along the outer edge of the flanks, progressing around the burn area in tandem until we met again on the other side of the field. Each strip started out as a 2 by 10-20 foot rectangle placed in such a way that the fire was encouraged to burn inwards towards the center of the plot while leaving a solid line of nonflammable black ground in its wake.

One of the strips we lit. This section of the plot had a fairly solid canopy, despite the lack of leaves on the trees, without as much sun on the ground the flames here were a bit smaller and we ended up using more fuel than we'd planned to keep things moving.

One of the strips we lit. This section of the plot had a fairly solid canopy, despite the lack of leaves on the trees, without as much sun on the ground the flames here were a bit smaller and we ended up using more fuel than we’d planned to keep things moving.

Here we are at the far side of the burn plot from where we started, at this point we'd just met up with the other team and were watching the fire work it way into the center of the plot.

Here we are at the far side of the burn plot from where we started, at this point we’d just met up with the other team and were watching the fire work it way into the center of the plot. The black layer coating the hillside is made up of burned up material, which is (obviously) naturally fire-resistant.

I'm slowly accepting the fact that I'm not going to get many fantastic fire pictures (especially not with a cell phone camera). This is an attempt at getting a shot at the advancing flame front.

I’m slowly accepting the fact that I’m not going to get many fantastic fire pictures (especially not with a cell phone camera). This is an attempt at getting a shot at the flame front during a moment when I was out of the smoke and without an immediate task.

As the strips burned inwards we extinguished the flames that edged out of the boundaries we’d established during our pre-burn perimeter walk. Eventually, the fronts progressing from each flank met each other in the center of the plot and (with all the fuel in the area consumed) petered out without much further interference from us. The whole process (from the perimeter walk to the last wisp of smoke) took a few hours, though it certainly felt shorter.

Finally, here the vast majority of the fire is out.

Finally, here the vast majority of the fire is out.

From here we moved on to a second burn, but I’ll save those pictures for later.

A whole lot of the same thing

Each day is a little warmer than the last, and now that the clocks have sprung past Daylight Saving time yet again there’s actually a decent amount of light left after the workday is over. The flip side is that unfortunately, its back to being utterly black out when I wake up in the morning. Our service with the National Seashore has remained, unlike the light levels, pretty much static over the past few weeks. Most days are some variation on cutting trees, piling branches, and burning everything. I’ve completely lost my ability to smell wood smoke on my clothes, I’m guessing that’s because everything I own is saturated with it. Think I’m joking, take a look at what my schedule has been for the past month:

Cutting and Burning in Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro.

Cutting and Burning in Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro.

There are a few novel projects in there, sterilizing our house while a particularly nasty flu-variant was moving through the other Americorps members like wildfire was a change of pace, as was constructing the educational boards for next years S-212 class at the Seashore. Other than that though, its been all fuels management, and I have the pictures to prove it.

Burning Piles other Americorps Members made for us at the Wellfleet Audubon

Burning Piles other Americorps Members made for us at the Wellfleet Audubon

Clearing roadsides at Pilgrim Springs

Clearing roadsides at Pilgrim Springs

Continuing to clear and maintain Old Kings Highway, an important portion of Cape Cod's emergency infrastructure.

Continuing to clear and maintain Old Kings Highway, an important portion of Cape Cod’s emergency infrastructure.

Clearing trees from the Penniman House at Fort Hill in Eastham.

Clearing trees from the Penniman House at Fort Hill in Eastham.

No doubt, as the weather warms our assignments will begin to vary a little more. On the plus side however, we’ve gotten a massive (from my perspective at least) amount accomplished in the last few months. Between the Americorps members and the Fire Crew members we put in 400 person-hours a week on projects like these. Things get done.

Burning Piles (Or: What I’ve been up to for the past month)

After spending the coldest part of the winter staying warm by cutting down the pine trees across the street from our house, we finally got to start enjoying the fruits of all that labor. For the past few weeks we’ve spent about half of our days burning all the piles we’d created since we started chainsaw training several months back.

As is normal for our days with the Cape Cod National Seashore, we start burn days with a briefing in which we go over the weather, a safety talk, and the days task. When the weather permits (and with all the snow on the ground we’ve been able to burn with relative impunity lately) we then proceed to collect the materials we need – Drip Torches, Rakes, Hoses, Leaf Blowers, Chainsaws, Road Signs, Fuel, ect and head to the project site.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, we get to begin burning all the piles we created.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, we get to begin burning all the piles we created.

The actual ignitions are facilitated initially with the liberal use of a drip torch and a leaf blower. However, once a pile has been reduced to embers we can stow the torches and substitute a bucketful of glowing coals to ignite new piles. The resulting bonfire is further stoked by constant application of air through the leaf-blowers, which keeps the pile burning at full blast until all the fuel is expended.

hot

Ignition. Doesn’t this look like fun?

Unsurprisingly, the bonfires are extremely hot. Really, there’s a reason we wear fire-resistant clothing. Our facial hair was the first thing to take the heat poorly. Unfortunately, extravagant beards and open flame don’t mix. We’ve gotten much better at coming away from the workday not covered in soot, but we still have a long way to go before we’re capable of working this close to a roaring fire and not getting a bit crispy.

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The leaf blowers dramatically increase the heat produced by the bonfires, allowing us to get a more complete burn in a shorter time. The downside is that they need to be fairly close to be useful, and the fires get really, really hot.

Canopy Clearing

Back in December we started a project, while going through chainsaw training with the Cape Cod National Seashore, thinning the forest in front of our house. Ostensibly  the reason behind the exercise was to thin the trees to the point where there wasn’t much canopy contact between pines. Doing that reduces the threat of a wildfire moving through the canopy of the forest.

Each pile represents between two and four trees.  When we started, attempting to run through the forest would have ended with a concussion, now the trees are thin enough to sprint though. If you're into that sort of thing.

Each pile represents between two and four trees. When we started, attempting to run through the forest would have ended with a concussion, now the trees are thin enough to sprint though. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Well, we’ve kept at it — on and off — for the past month and now we’re (unsurprisingly) running out of forest to thin. Each tree we felled we bucked into logs (unfortunately, Pitch Pine makes for poor fireplace wood) and limbed. Half of us stacked the resulting logs and branches into neat piles to burn later. I’ve tried to figure out how many trees we’ve cut down over the past few weeks (mostly while doing my shift hauling branches across the forest floor) but I’m not entirely happy with the accuracy of my guesses. At the very least, I can personally account for somewhere north of forty Pitch Pines. I’m not sure if my numbers are consistant with the rest of the crew, though.

If they are, then we’ve taken down upwards of three hundred trees. We’ve certainly cut down a lot, but that seems absurd.

Our boss went through the woods before us each day and marked somewhere in the neighborhood of forty trees for us to remove.

Our boss went through the woods before us each day and marked somewhere in the neighborhood of forty trees for us to remove. When we started, you couldn’t see the houses in the background from here.

If the weather holds, we’ll start burning those piles tomorrow. I’m not exactly sure the methods we’ll use to burn the (almost) innumerable enormous branch piles that are strewn around the forest floor, but I know that the process involves using leaf blowers to fan the flames and that those of us with beards have been told that its entirely possible they’ll be singed off by the heat involved.

I'm not the biggest fan of logging in the world, but this project does seem to have a point beyond simply cutting down trees. A crown fire would be devastating and clearing the forest like this is an "easy" way to prevent one from developing in this area (which happens to be near a few houses).

I’m not the biggest fan of logging in the world, but this project does seem to have a point beyond simply cutting down trees. A crown fire would be devastating and clearing the forest like this is an “easy” way to prevent one from developing in this area (which happens to be near a few houses).

For reference, here's a picture of one of the brush piles with one of my co-Americorps Members nearby. He's over six feet tall, and that isn't nearly the largest of the piles. I'm looking forward to burning them so very much.

For reference, here’s a picture of one of the brush piles with one of my co-Americorps Members nearby. He’s over six feet tall, and that isn’t nearly the largest of the piles. I’m looking forward to burning them so very much.

I’m not really a beard person, but I’m mildly concerned that my hair might suffer the same fate. We’ll see.

Icebergs on the bayside

It’s been painfully cold lately. Cold enough that I really don’t have much of an urge to leave the safety of my house when I’m not actually working. However, I did get out a bit this weekend, long enough at least to see that the bay side of the Cape has begun to freeze. Apparently the persistent wind from the North has been pushing all the frozen and slushy saltwater into the mouth’s of the bays and inlets that dot the bay side of the Cape. Choking them with layers of ice.

Its pretty amazing looking, although I’ve been told its also really unfortunate for the oyster farmers who hadn’t removed their stock from the bay yet. It’s been years (apparently) since there was this much ice around, and it might have taken some unlucky folks  by surprise.

This picture was taken right near the border between Eastham and Orleans on the bay side of the Cape. The ice extends as far as the eye can see.

This picture was taken right near the border between Eastham and Orleans on the bay side of the Cape. The ice extends as far as the eye can see.

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