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Fire on Cape Cod: Massachusetts Military Reservation Burns (Part 2)

By far the biggest burns we participated in this past year were a pair carried out on the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR). Over two full days the prescribed burns on the MMR covered~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). A few days ago I posted pictures from Day 1 of these burns, today is Day 2’s turn.

Again, during the second day our primary job was to hold one of the flanks of the burn. Unlike the first Rx at MMR however, this time we were tasked with keeping our flank burning in lockstep with the far side. Another team was on the true internal ignitions, but we still got plenty of torch time over the course of the day.

The second day’s total hovered somewhere around 230 acres, finishing in a spectacular 100+ foot display that was burning deep inside the unit. We had an easy time on our flank, in part because the vegetation was quite forgiving — A mix of tightly packed dog-hair pitch pines and fuel heavy (but otherwise clear) forest floor. The picture below is a good example of one of the “roughest” areas we were responsible for, the tightly packed pines in the lower portion of the picture acted like ladders, which allowed the flames to reach the upper reaches of their neighbors easily.

There wasn’t much we could realistically do to prevent those trees from torching, instead we mitigated the hazard (of having a tree torch on the perimeter) by having an engine on scene and ready to dowse spots. In large part because of the wind direction that day (note the direction of the flames in the picture below) spotting wasn’t nearly as much of a worry on our flank as it was the first day.

Our flank of the fire. Trees torching.

Our flank of the fire. Trees torching.

Like the first burn at MMR we participated in, the prescription for this day allowed for full-stand replacement. We kept the pace of the advancing flame front moving slowly in an effort to keep things “cool,” but some torching still occurred. Again, this really wasn’t a concern, just something for us to be aware of all day.

More extensive torching in the deep interior.

More extensive torching in the deep interior… And a heroic pose from a coworker.

The smoke column generated by those flames went straight up and was apparently visible from as far away as Provincetown.

The smoke column generated by those flames went straight up and was apparently visible from as far away as Provincetown.

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That just about covers the two MMR burns, unfortunately it was around this time that the camera on my phone decided it had had enough life and quit on me. I’m still hoping (somewhat unrealistically) that I can save the pictures I’d already taken, but I haven’t actually “tried” to extricate them from the apparently broken SD card yet. I’ll figure that out “eventually.” Probably.

Next I’ll be covering our year-end (ish) trip to Baker Island in Acadia National Park.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Hurricane Sandy Relief: Part 3

Over the course of the week I was serving around Staten Island, I put in somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 hours (including travel time). Needless to say, we got a tremendous amount accomplished in that time, but a relatively small amount compared to the scale of the problem. After the first day on Liberty Island the weather took a quick turn for the worst (New York City residents might recall the Northeaster that slammed into the city just a few days after the ocean calmed down). The snow kept us from returning to Liberty Island for a few days, and during that time we turned our attentions to Ellis Island.

While waiting for an assignment we found the comfiest place to relax, the conference room in the park offices on Ellis.

While waiting for an assignment we found the comfiest place to relax, the conference room in the park offices on Ellis.

Ellis hadn’t been spared during the Hurricane, far from it in fact, and as another american icon its cleanup was also a priority for the park service. There were two major tasks that needed to be addressed on Ellis (that we were able to deal with at least). First, the storm surge had entered many of the main administrative buildings on Ellis, and had destroyed literal tons of educational materials (mostly pamphlets).

Ok, these aren't pamphlets, but we did just about fill a dumpster with pallet after pallet of soaked (and ruined) educational materials in half a dozen different languages. Luckily, quite a few survived the hurricane's assault and were squirreled away somewhere safe to wait for the eventual return of tourism to the park.

Ok, these aren’t pamphlets, but we did just about fill a dumpster with pallet after pallet of soaked (and ruined) educational materials in half a dozen different languages. Luckily, quite a few survived the hurricane’s assault and were squirreled away somewhere safe to wait for the eventual return of tourism to the park.

Additionally, the storm had also totaled the trailers that normally served as the base of operations for the Park Police. The area around the trailers was festooned with scrap metal that had been torn off nearby buildings, as well as pretty much everything that the police hadn’t been able to remove from their dwellings before the storm hit. We spent days sifting through the rubble surrounding those buildings alone, sorting trash from salvageable material and eventually finishing what the storm started by demolishing the remnants of the trailers so new ones could be brought in from the mainland.

There were originally two trailers in a small compound here, no more.

There were originally two trailers in a small compound here, no more.

This trailer had held the kennels in which the Park Police's K9 units were kept when not on duty, we managed to save the kennels themselves (and the dogs were safetely evacuated prior to the storm) but the trailer itself was a complete loss.

This trailer had held the kennels in which the Park Police’s K9 units were kept when not on duty, we managed to save the kennels themselves (and the dogs were safetely evacuated prior to the storm) but the trailer itself was a complete loss.

We filled eight 30-yard dumpsters with debris from the storm.

We filled eight 30-yard dumpsters with debris from the storm.

The main buildings were a different matter entirely. We pointedly ignored the tourist centers on Ellis, there was another team dealing with addressing the mold that had begun to flourish in the historical buildings and we had more than enough to do outside the buildings.

We found all sorts of things in the debris surrounding the trailers, by the time we left we'd managed to sort most of it into either the trash or back into the hands of the police who had served on the island prior to the storm.

We found all sorts of things in the debris surrounding the trailers, by the time we left we’d managed to sort most of it into either the trash or back into the hands of the police who had served on the island prior to the storm.

We left Ellis Island considerably cleaner than we found it, there was still a ton of work to do, but we were among the first to be sent to respond there, hopefully our presence helped to get the ball rolling. Ellis Island is an amazing place (the main buildings are gorgeous) and hopefully it will be reopened to the public soon.

Hurricane Sandy Relief: Part 2

As I mentioned in a previous entry, the Americorps group I serve with was sent to assist with the relief efforts in New York after Hurricane Sandy made such a mess of the city. Specifically, we were sent to Staten Island, which took the brunt of the storms force and had suffered the most damage. On Staten Island we took shelter in a building on Fort Wadsworth with a few hundred other Park Service employees (Mostly Law Enforcement officers at first) who had been assigned there.

On our first morning, after finding breakfast in the base’s mess hall, we were sent to Liberty Island to being cleaning up the damage from Sandy. Unsurprisingly, the Statue of Liberty herself was completely fine, it will take more than a measly hurricane to even scuff her paint. The rest of the island was considerably less fortunate. The other structures  had taken the full force of the storm surge, windows were blown out, doors smashed open, and the contents of entire houses looked like they’d been put through a soggy blender.

It'll take a lot more than a hurricane to even scratch the paint.

It’ll take a lot more than a hurricane to even scratch the paint.

That first day we restricted our activities to felling and disposing of all the damaged trees on the island. Moving a chipper across the water ended up taking the majority of the morning, and we ended up leaving it on the island for the duration of our stay in NYC. We spent our spare moments (the few of them we found) digging through and disposing of the trash that had been washed ashore by the storm surge. That chore ended up being equal parts disgusting and fascinating. All sorts of things float around in New York Harbor, and a strange selection of objects had found their way into nooks and crannies on liberty island. We found cases of soda that had been liberated from smashed vending machines, hats, gloves, more vile plastic bags than you could shake a stick at… you get the idea.

The storm surge had actually torn bricks from the walkway.

The storm surge had actually torn bricks from the walkway.

Liberty Island was eerie without its normal crowds. I visited the statue once when I was in elementary school, and remember it being absolutely packed. We had the place to ourselves while we cleared the debris from the main plazas, an experience I’m not likely to forget any time soon.

Clearing broken branches from the smaller trees.

Clearing broken branches from the smaller trees.

Cleaning up Liberty Island

Hurricane Sandy Relief: Part 1

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer to write updates here with the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, waiting a few weeks (or a month or two) gives me time to collect pictures and learn more about whatever job I was assigned. This is especially true with the Fire Crew’s experience being deployed to assist with the post-Sandy recovery efforts in and around Staten Island New York.

We weathered the storm itself on the Cape, which was miraculously spared much in the way of damage. I believe that during the storm itself, another Americorps group on Cape Cod did help the Red Cross set up a shelter, but the storm was mild enough around here that they didn’t end up being needed for very long. We spent that week working our way through S-130 and S-190  — the two courses required for a Red Card — online, going slowly insane from an overabundance of energy while the wind whipped through the trees outside. (Ok, actually we lasted about an hour before we went out to experience the storm first hand)

Cabin Fever is a harsh illness

Suffering from Cabin Fever

Other parts of the east coast were considerably less lucky than we were, and when we finally finished our coursework on Friday November 2nd and were given the option to sign up to join the remainder of the Cape Cod Fire Crew in their deployment to Staten Island. We jumped at the chance, got our Tetanus booster shots, and spent the entirety of the next day packing for the trip.

Packing for Sandy Relief

We took nearly everything that wasn’t bolted down. We’d already heard how hard it was to get fuel in New York city, and took no chances on finding other equipment once we arrived.

We traveled all day on Sunday and arrived well after dark to collapse in the space that had been allotted to the responders at Fort Wadsworth. The next day we got our assignment, and headed to Liberty Island to start cleaning up the wreckage the storm had left behind.

Liberty Island

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