Today is another Class 4 high fire danger day, meaning the risk of forest fires is very high. The Fire Rescue Department has been busy with brush fires all week. Says Assistant Fire Chief Glenn Johnson, “We’ve responded to at least one [brush] fire every day this week, whether in Auburn or assisting another town.”
So far this week in Auburn, AFRD has battled larger fires on West St., Rochdale St., and Barnes St. To say a fire is “just a brush fire” is not really an accurate statement.
“Brush fires are very labor-intensive” says Johnson. “They tend to cover large areas, and require us to run a lot of hose. We have to extinguish them with water, shovels and rakes.”
According to Johnson, Wednesday’s fire on West St. was at the end of a peninsula and required about 3,000 feet of hose be run to extinguish the fire. “It’s a lot of work, and it creates a lot of cleanup” says Johnson.
Brush fires are usually started by people, intentionally or not. Along highways, fires often start with the careless disposal of smoking materials. Machines such as ATVs or construction equipment can spark a fire from the hot exhaust, and the operators may not even know they started the fire, according to Johnson. Some fires are started intentionally by kids getting into mischief or people just being malicious.
Of particular concern the next few days is outdoor fires, such as the popular backyard fire pit. Conditions are so dry, flying embers can easily spark a fire in dry leaves or brush. Disposal of campfire ashes can be problematic, too. In one case this week, a homeowner cleaned out a fire pit two days after using it. According to the homeowner, he even handled the burned wood with his bare hands. However, the wood continued to smolder, unbeknownst to the homeowner, and later sparked a brush fire.
While these fires have been contained to relatively small areas, brush fires can spread very quickly and can “jump”, according to Johnson. “If there is wind blowing, lots of dead, dry stuff on the ground, sparks can spread the fire beyond where we are working” he says. “There’s always the danger, if there are structures nearby, that a structure becomes involved.”
Brush fires present specific challenges and danger to firefighters. “The big thing is access to water” says Johnson. “These fires tend to be in wooded areas away from streets, and there is not usually a ready water supply. We have to set up a system with tankers, or portable water bags to draft from. That takes time and the fire can be spreading.”
Wind shifts can present a problem, as well. “You might suddenly be downwind, with smoke burning your eyes, and burning embers blowing. It can be dangerous.”
Another danger firefighters face is getting lost in the woods. Johnson says it is not always possible to run hoses all the way to the site of a brush fire. Personnel sometimes have to hike over terrain to access a fire, carrying shovels, rakes, and bladder bags or pump cans. Brush fires are smokey, and firefighters can become disoriented. Forest fires tend to break out in the later afternoon or evening after the sun has heated the ground all day, meaning firefighters may also be battling the dark. AFRD did not clear the West St. fire until after 10pm at night.
A brush fire on the Auburn/Oxford line last August is a good example of how challenging these blazes can be. That fire was about a mile into the woods, over very rough terrain off of Shady Ln. in Oxford. Firefighters from several communities battled that fire over several days. Though it was quickly contained to about one and one half acres, that fire burned deep into the ground due to similarly dry conditions.
Officials are asking residents to be particularly careful this weekend, especially when enjoying a campfire. With the hot, dry spell and no real rain in the immediate forecast, the fire danger will likely remain very high. Assistant Chief Johnson urges anyone who sees or smells smoke to call the fire department or 911 immediately. “The sooner we can get there the smaller we can keep the fire.”