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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.

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.

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.

Twas the week before Christmas

And Cape Cod is still a ghost town. I really do like this place, especially as empty as it is these days. From what I’ve been told, we have another four or five months of quiet before the vacation season really kicks off properly.

This week was spent completing our chainsaw training with the Cape Cod National Seashore. We started S-212 (Wildland Fire Chainnsaws) over a month ago, but Hurricane Sandy interrupted our training and we weren’t able to finish it before we split off from working primarily with the Park Service. I’m planning on writing a more in depth account of what S-212 contained for us over the next few days. For now, I’ll just share a few pictures from the week.

Luckily for us, the Cape Cod National Seashore has a location right across the street from our house they've been wanting to thin for a few years now.

Luckily for us, the Cape Cod National Seashore has a location right across the street from our house they’ve been wanting to thin for a few years now.

In brief, we spent the entire week cutting down Pitch Pines in the forested lot across the street from our house. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone, we needed chainsaw training so that our bosses within the Park Service could trust us not to cut off our own legs using their chainsaws and the Park Service needed the Pitch Pines near our house thinned out so they’d be less of a fire-hazard.

After three days of felling, limbing, bucking, and piling.

After three days of felling, limbing, bucking, and piling.

Mission Accomplished, I guess. We cut down somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty trees over the course of three days, which opened up the canopy and gave us plenty of firewood. We don’t actually have a fireplace to burn it in (its just as well, since Pitch Pine isn’t really the best ‘indoor’ firewood), but had the world actually ended on the 21st we’d have been set.

The other big project this week was turning our garage from a place that looked like a tornado made of power tools had touched down to an actual shop.

I wish I had had the foresight to take a before picture.

I wish I had had the foresight to take a before picture.

Working right by home was nice I guess. I’m just happy we finally got that training finished up. We’ll be using chainsaws alot over the next few months.

Not the Princess Bride’s Fire Swamp: Prescribed Burn 3

Our third prescribed burn this year was scheduled for October 18th. The goal was to burn a several acre cranberry bog at the behest of the owners of the Dry Swamp Bog organic farm in Orleans. They seemed to be of the opinion that burning the bog would clear out a variety of undesirable species that they didn’t want to control using herbicides while also reinvigorating the soil.

Never having done something like this before, and having a minimum of terrestrial farming experience, I was initially skeptical that we’d even be able to get the fire started (Bogs aren’t exactly on my top 10 list for ‘most flammable places’). On the other hand, I’m all in favor of reducing herbicide use (especially in wetlands areas) when possible, and was completely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Before our walk around of the property. Most of what you can see here was our target area.

Before our walk around of the property. Most of what you can see here was our target area.

At any rate, after loading three trucks and a fire engine with all the gear we’d need to light a bog on fire, we set out and arrived on the property before noon. The first thing we noticed (as we should have) was that the entire bog area sat only a few inches above the waterline.

Ok, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The area we were to burn was surrounded on three of four sides with trenches that were full of water. Those trenches formed natural control line, although as we found out, they weren’t perfect.
Sizing up the property our boss found one place in particular, a corner where there were nearby structures, that deserved extra protection and parked out one fire engine there on the off chance a few unlucky firebrands crossed water filled trenches.

Our very-nearly-mandatory pre-ignition group photo. The brown stalks in the foreground were actually the only vegetative matter in the bog that burned consistently. The cranberry bushes certainly didn't. Which, come to think about it, was probably just what the farmers wanted.

Our very-nearly-mandatory pre-ignition group photo. The brown stalks in the foreground were actually the only vegetative matter in the bog that burned consistently. The cranberry bushes certainly didn’t. Which, come to think about it, was probably just what the farmers wanted.

Due to the nature of the cranberry bog: the wet, the shade covering half of it, the sparse/low vegetation. We were to use fusees (effectively longer lasting road flares used to ignite material by hand) and a handheld torch fueled by a backpack mounted propane canister  We also had four backpack pumps that we were to use for control and mop-up after the burn.

Having the cannisters mounted on our backs saved us the trouble of lugging them around on dollies. However it did mean that we had to ditch our IA packs.

Having the propane canisters mounted on our backs saved us the trouble of lugging them around on dollies. However it did mean that we had to ditch our IA packs. The torches were lit manually, using the conveniently provided strikers we ended up tying to the frames.

As we’d feared/expected, the bog didn’t burn particularly well. The bearers of the two torches walked back and forth across the burn area using the long-handled flamethrowers to place dots of flame every 10 feet or so, creating a tight grid of small burning patches. The rest of us helped fill in the remaining space by using the fusees to light particularly promising patches of dried plants and by physically moving flaming material into green (unburned) territory.

How sweet does this look?! Seriously, its lucky we brought these along, the fall sun wasn't really putting out enough heat to make our job easy.

How sweet does this look?! Seriously, its lucky we brought these along, the fall sun wasn’t really putting out enough heat to make our job easy.

Here Matt is 'dotting' the burn area. Behind him the dots of fire he's laid down already are creeping along the ground.

Here Matt is ‘dotting’ the burn area. Behind him the dots of fire he’s laid down already are creeping along the ground.

Some of the plants in the bog, like this Pitch Pine sapling, simply weren't going to ignite on a day like the one we were burning on. It would have taken a much more intense fire on a much drier day to get the pine in this picture to burn.

Some of the plants in the bog, like this Pitch Pine sapling, simply weren’t going to ignite on a day like the one we were burning on. It would have taken a much more intense fire on a much drier day to get the pine in this picture to burn.

The only snag came when, as the burn boss had predicted, a few firebrands made the jump across the trench near the lone structure adjacent to the bog. There they burned merrily for nearly a minute before they were drowned by a fast acting firefighter standing by the engine’s internal pump. I wish I’d been nearby to get pictures of that sequence of events, but I was busy carrying burning grass around on the other side of the bog at the time and only heard about it over the radio.

The flames were low for the duration of the burn. Again, the effect of the sun on the fire's intensity was pronounced, as you can sort of see in this picture.

The flames were low for the duration of the burn. Again, the effect of the sun on the fire’s intensity was pronounced, as you can sort of see in this picture.

Mop up was minimal after such a low intensity blaze, but we still spent the better part of half an hour at the end of the day extinguishing every last whisper of smoke that had been rising from the field.

As I mentioned above, the only fuels in the burn area that consistently ignited were the tall brown stalks. The cranberry plants themselves were pretty much immune to the attentions of the propane torches. While this made for a somewhat low-key experience from my perspective, I can’t help but think that the end result of the prescribed burn was fairly close to what the farmers that had asked for our help had hoped would happen. It will be interesting to see how this property recovers in the spring.

The brighter side of forest fires

Previously I posted an overview of some work I did in the Ventana Wilderness. The photographs in that post were chosen primarily to give a balanced view of the forest after it had been burned to cinders a few years ago. The tallest trees in the forest are all dead, charred and leafless, but they’re largely still standing, leaving a hiker traversing the forest in a blackened mausoleum of creaking snags and ash.

On the other hand, life at the ground level has exploded. With more sun reaching the ground (there’s nothing like a canopy to block its passage) the soil has long since erupted into a thick mass of grasses, saplings, and ferns. Some of the saplings already reach five or six feet off the ground, and stands of regenerating forests were thick enough to warrant simply going around as we re-cut our trail.

Today’s photographs focus more on those instances of positive regeneration than upon the blackened snags. Enjoy.

New growth surrounds dead stems.

On break, it wasn’t as hot as the desert, but nor was it particularly cool. Note how the new growth has almost completely covered the old dead wood.

Luckily, although the fire was intense in the valley we were working in, it didn’t touch much of the rest of the park.

Places where the fire had been less severe regenerated considerably quicker.

In the absence of a shading canopy, new growth explodes from the forest floor.

Trail Work in The Ventana Wilderness: October 2011

When my job in Alpaugh was finally done I was temporarily without work, and was invited to enjoy a few days of RnR in Santa Cruz. My internship with the BLM had been arranged through a company called The American Conservation Experience (ACE), and they had dormitory style housing there where I could stay and wait until my next job (Read: posts about Catalina Island) was to begin.

Santa Cruz is wonderful, it really is, but I decided I’d rather be working than sitting on my hands waiting to head down to Catalina. So after a few days of enjoying mild temperatures and the glorious Pacific I joined an ACE trail crew and was sent down to the Ventana Wilderness.

Trail work is… well it can be a lot of things. For starters, It is among the most basic forms of conservation work. It can range from simply brushing trails, to regrading and tamping paths, to constructing staircases out of rough stone, or replacing water-bars on eroded hillsides. It is incredibly physical work, but at the same time it is (often) quite satisfying. After all, by your hands a trail is made — if that’s something you’re into.

In Ventana, the work was extraordinarily simple, really. A few years prior to our arrival on the scene a “planned” fire event had gotten out of control (it happens) and had fried a huge chunk of the park. Our job was to recut a trail that had been destroyed when the flames moved through. People had reportedly been getting lost in the area, expecting a path that was no longer there.

Fire management is a tricky subject in California, much of the forest within the state could quite happily weather a small burn every few years. Unfortunately, artificially creating a natural-esque patchwork pattern of burns that both invigorate the natural landscape and don’t scare the residents speechless seems to be beyond the abilities of… well anyone alive really. As a result, much of California’s (very) flammable forested regions are not burned as frequently as they could be. In Ventana this meant that the region we were now cutting a new-old trail through had been the site of a disastrously hot fire that had killed hundreds of enormous Ponderosa Pines.

As a result, Ventana today represents an interesting (though hardly unprecedented) juxtiposition between death and regrowth. Yes, all the old trees are dead wood. Yes they creak omnimously in the wind, and YES they fell from the sky frequently enough that we were constantly on the watch for hanging dead-wood. But at the same time there was a staggering amount of life around. The photographs in this first post about the area will make an attempt to balance the two sides of the issue, in the future I’ll take time to focus on each in turn.

The flames that killed those trees were reportedly ~200 feet tall…. and I want to be a wilderness firefighter some day, what is wrong with me…?

The fire top-killed all the larger trees, but the seed bank survived the experience, Only a few years later we had our hands full chopping a new path into the undergrowth.

The still standing dead trees were a worrying hazard. No one wants to be near one when it finally succumbs to gravity…

The trail we were working on, that we “finished,” was incredibly rough. Our assignment was more to give wayward hikers something to latch on to rather than to create something perfect.

It’s obvious enough that the fire left horrific scars in the valley we were working in. To some extent this is a tragedy, it will be a long time before this area returns to what is once was. However this is not entirely a bad thing. Land Management (and with it Fire Management) is far from an exact science, and areas like this do hold potential for wonderful surprises.

In the coming days, as I tell more about my time in Ventana, I’ll attempt to show what I mean by that.

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