Wildland Fires – Planning, Planning, Planning

Grass Fire

Perhaps you may consider a discussion of wildland fires a bit “off topic,” but some fires don’t start inside our barns, some come to our barns from other sources, such as forest, brush, or grassland fires, or embers coming from a small planned fire, or from a fire on a nearby property.  Whatever the source, you have an evacuation situation.  The one factor in your favor is that you may have a considerable amount of time in which to evacuate the occupants of your barn.

You can help keep damages to a minimum by creating what wildland firefighters call defensible space.  This is an area, at least thirty feet wide, surrounding any buildings you need to protect in case firefighters can’t get to your property, or, if they can, they will have an open area around a building in which to work.  A steep slope will allow a fire to spread more rapidly than it will on flat land, so depending on your topography (are you on top of a hill, in a valley, on flatland?) you may need more defensible space around your buildings. Figure on thirty feet as the minimum, though.  When you pace it off you’ll see that you haven’t lost much valuable space considering the protection it offers.  Within the defensible space you must keep the grass below six inches in height, but your horses (or goats, cows, sheep) can take care of that for you since you can still use the area for a paddock.  If you have any low-growing plants in the area they should be fire-resistant.

The Importance of Timing

Timing is important in evacuating from an encroaching wildland fire because you need to get your animals out before vehicular traffic slows down the process.  For example, if you have four horses to move and only have access to your own two-horse trailer, you will be moving two of your horses at a time and making two trips to do it.  You need adequate time to move the first two horses, go back home for the other two horses, and then make the second trip to safety successfully without being locked in a highway traffic jam of hundreds to thousands of people evacuating the endangered area.

Not only do you need enough time, you need to have enough fuel to make both trips without getting off a highway to refuel.  If traffic is beginning to build up, by the time you refuel, you may risk being stuck in a jam, and that’s time you don’t have—unless, of course, you began your evacuation at the first word of a threat.  Better to waste the fuel and time and not have had to evacuate at all, then to wait until the last minute and take your chances on reaching safety for yourself and your animals.

So, my main word on wildland fires comes down to this: you’d never forgive yourself if the two remaining horses in my example were yours and they perished because you didn’t foresee the traffic problems or realize just how fast a wildland fire can spread.

As a corollary to evacuation, practice loading your horses or other animals in a trailer (different kinds if you have them available) so they load without hesitation.  Plan more than one escape route, including one on foot in case your planned escape roads become impassable due to traffic jams, firefighting apparatus, or the fire.  If you are transporting (or in some instances having to turn your horses free to escape weather-related emergencies),  the best ID for your horse is a fetlock band with the horse’s name, your name, address and phone numbers.  A fetlock band is the preferred method because it won’t get lost, as a halter might.  Carry with you proof of ownership and identification on each horse, including a photo of you and your horse together.  Also, make sure your horses are current on vaccinations (tetanus, EEE, West Nile, rabies and flu/rhino)  in case you must evacuate your horses to a public holding area.  Make sure you have with you all medications your horses take.

Firefighter Debbi Hudson sent me her first-hand account of wildland firefighting and what can happen if  horse owners are not prepared for the possibility of a wildland fire coming their way.  When it comes to the absolute importance of having defensible space, here’s her first-hand account of what she experienced in that fire:

“This fire occurred in the summer of 1980 when I was working for the U.S. Forest Service, assigned to a 4 man engine company. I was the newest addition to the crew, green as the summer grass, even though this was my second year with the USFS.  I look back now, and am in awe at how clueless I really was in those days.  Fighting fire was fun. We would work hard, chase the fires, put them out and then go drink beer—lots of beer. Most of us lived at the stations, so it was convenient. We lived to fight fire and we fought lots of ‘em.  As a result, we got to know each other pretty well, to know each others strengths and weaknesses.

Most fires were ordinary.  They had a lot of things in common, but each one was different in its own way, even if they were pretty much all the same.

This one was different.  We had been dispatched with a strike team (5 engine companies) to somewhere in southern California  (I can’t remember where).  I do remember it was in November, because the governer was invited to eat a turkey dinner with the firefighters.  We had been there for days already. They had a big feast laid out while the governor was there.  We all stood in line, but by the time I got up to the serving counter, there was no sign of the Thanksgiving feast I saw parade past us!

We were experiencing Santa Ana winds in the region.  It was too windy for air support, so it was just us ground crews.  Most of us were forestry crews, with not much structural experience.

We had been tasked with protecting a home on a hill. The fire was still some distance off, but approaching us fast.  Real fast.  We had two trucks, eight firefighters, and were from the same station, so we knew each other well.  We had a small truck and a Model 60; all together, maybe 750 gallons of water.  We headed up the hill.  On the way up, the owner passed us going down.  He never said a word to us, just smiled and gave us the thumbs up sign.  I guess we gave him high hopes that his homestead would be well guarded.  After all, not all the homes were assigned fire trucks.  I don’t know who made the decisions as to which dwellings would receive protection and which wouldn’t.

When we got to the top, we got out of our trucks, searched for water hoses, (that was my job) and brought them to the trucks.  I had no idea how useless they would turn out to be.  The hoses were old, cracked, tangled up, and I had to literally dig my way through the overgrown bushes around the house so we would have easy access.  The sky was red from the glow of the approaching fire.  It was an eerie feeling.  I’ll never forget the way everyone just kept gazing around.

I looked up to these guys. They were veteran firefighters.  Rough, tough, older than me.  They looked really worried.  I remember comments like:  “who would put shake shingle roofs out here?”  “Look at the piles of wood everywhere”  “You can’t even tell where the outbuildings are”.  And then the embers came.  A few at first.  My rough, tough, buddies were buttoning up their shirts, and actually putting their goggles on!  Embers started to come faster, and then there was the roar.  Embers were landing on the roof of the house.  Our hoses were no match.  Michael noticed fire in the house.  We kicked open the door and went in on our bellies.  I wasn’t used to this.  I was always on my feet when we fought fire, my whole two years of experience!  Now, I was on my belly, in a house on fire.  I remember looking at the pictures on the piano.  Horses everywhere.  I thought to myself, even then, we will be the last ones to see the inside of this house.  It is going to burn down.  I’m scared to death. I don’t know what to do.  Michael is yelling at us to drag more hose in.  It’s all I can do to breathe.  But I keep pulling in the hose.  Another fellow, Mike (who really was our first aid man—fire scared the crap out of him) was helping me pull.  He told me he was going outside, he couldn’t breathe anymore.  Michael, ahead of me, was now yelling to get out! The whole house was going up. No kidding.  Out we went. I turned around looking for the pictures again, but it was too smoky.

Once outside, I was relieved. So I thought.  It was now dusk.  The fire was racing past us.  Everything was on fire.  There was a garage attached to the house. We heard a lot of noises.  Someone opened up the garage door.  There must have been 50 cats in there!  They were all screaming and dying. None of them tried to come outside. I felt so helpless. But that was over quick.

By now the emberswere so bad, I was crying. The cats upset me. The house was burning up in front of me. I was getting stung with embers everywhere.  I asked Michael what do we do now?  Can we please leave?  He told me toughen up, we still had work to do.  I said like what?  He pointed at the barn.  I stared in horror. I saw a horse’s head sticking out a window.  Horses!  We didn’t know about the horses!  How many?  The barn was hard to make out with the overgrowth,the fire, the dusk, the PILES OF WOOD NEXT TO THE BARN WITH THE SHAKE SHINGLE ROOF!  We headed for the barn.  The latches were hard to open. There were about 10 or so stalls.  The horses were screaming. I mean screaming.  Human screams.  Anddogs.  There were dogs in there too.  I remember opening up a stall and some dogs came out. A horse ran past me on the way out. Another horse ran past me on the way in. Dogs were jumping into the fire. Right into the fire! And then they were gone. I was sorry I had let them out.  We couldn’t get hold of the horses, no halters on them.  I just knew I was gonna get my head kicked off.  One of us would have to go into the stall and try to scare the horse out. Some came out.Then they would go right back in!  We realized that we had to close the door as soon as the horse ran out. But they all kept going back in. I know most of them died. I was trying not to show it, but I was bawling like a baby.  Why wouldn’t the horses  run out where they were safe?  WHY DIDN’T THAT MAN TELL US HE  HAD HORSES UP HERE? WHY DIDN’T HE STAY?  I remember to this day his smiling face.

By now, we had to leave the barn. It was too dangerous. No way, even if we had water, could we do anything now.  I remember the sounds of the animals burning.  The smell. You could catch whiffs of hair now and then. I was sick to my stomach. We went outside.  I didn’t say anything. I went to the truck. I didn’t care who wanted me to do what.It didn’t matter anymore. We lost the house. We lost  the cats. We fought like crazy for the horses.  We lost them too. The dogs.  All of them were dead.  All around me.  And the embers were still stinging me like bees. Somehow, I had lost my goggles. I was afraid of burning my eyes.  I went to the truck.  There was Mike.  Sitting there frozen. I didn’t remember him in the barn. He had been in the truck awhile. I felt ashamed because I was hiding from the fire, too. Then a horse ran by the truck. Michael and Larry were trying to catch it.  I got out.  They had found a rope somewhere. The horse was scared to death. They were trying to keep him from running back to the barn.  But the barn was now a fireball.  The horse was confused. He couldn’t find his barn.  They never did catch him.  I saw the horse again, one more time.  He was just walking along a road, down by the staging area.

After that, we got in the truck.  No one was really saying much.  As we were going down the driveway, a dog was following us.  We stopped and gave him a ride.  He was pretty shaken up but didn’t resist when we picked him up.  We later turned him over to animal control.  I wanted to keep him.  He needed a vet though. I’m not sure he made it.

On the way down the driveway, I kept thinking how ignorant we were not to have noticed the barn before. How could we have missed it?  Was it that overgrown?  Was there that much wood stacked around?  I guess it’s something I’ll never know. We never did talk about that fire like we did the rest. The fire had claimed victory on us. And we were so confident before it struck.  We were not in familiar territory, miles from home.

But how wouldyou pre-fire plan for this?  Do the local firemen know where all the barns are?  Do they care?  How much information can you expect the fire department to know?  How much help can you expect in a catastrophe?  When you live out from town, you are on your own.  It’s just you. Your livestock  depends on you and what you can do to prevent disasters from happening.  And what plan do you have when one strikes?  How much is it worth to have a certified electrician do a safety check?  Are you willing to spend the money to fix the hazards?  In a shared barn, how do you convince your fellow boarders to contribute to safety?  Housekeeping?  I’ve seen barns that actually have a canopy of cobweb/hay mixtures.  Hay strewn everywhere.  Cigarette butts on the ground. . . .”

I leave Debbi’s account with sadness in my heart for the animals that were lost and for what she and her fellow firefighters endured.  Twenty-seven years later, her memories remain all too vivid.   It’s heartbreaking to realize that many other wildland firefighters have similar tales to tell.

Wildland Fires can be Dangerous, but are they all Bad?

As a point of interest, the Florida State Parks conduct controlled burns as a means of fire management. In a news update, a reporter explained, “Prescribed burning mimics natural fire cycles, improving habitat for native plants and animals and reducing the harmful effects of wildfire.  Certain endangered species not only benefit from fire, but will decline in its absence.”

Pat Muskevitsch, wife of “one of the best soldiers in the Army,” sent me this photo and explained, “Fort Stewart’s Department of  Forestry regularly burns off the brush and dead wood on the installation.  It is accepted forestry practice to prevent future uncontrolled fires and to enhance the pine harvest.  From my understanding of controlled burning, it is also beneficial to the wildlife.  Ash replenishes the soil and encourages new growth of grasses and growing plants.  There are some plant species whose seeds cannot germinate unless burned.  Before modern man came along,  natural fires burned unchecked and the ecosystems affected were healthier for them in the long run.”  With a BS degree in Conservation and Wildlife Management with a double major in Biology, Pat knows what she’s talking about.  For 18 years she taught high school classes in biology, anatomy and physiology, environmental science, physical science, chemistry, physics and astronomy.  Pat and her husband are retiring to Louisiana, where Pat has a 6-stall barn that she’s going to modify to make as fire safe as possible.


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