A Glow to the South

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs


A strong wind whipped up a fire

Submitted: December 15, 2017

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Submitted: December 15, 2017

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The gale-force southerly struck with the strength to shake his house just after Henry had gone to bed! It was one of those cold, dry winds that breaks branches from trees and leaves a mess to clean up. An hour later, his phone rang! A phone call at that hour of the night usually meant trouble so Henry bounded out of bed to answer it. It was Skip who said there was a big orange glow to the south! He’d been outside for a pee, noticed the glow and thought he’d better report it. Henry told him not to go to back to bed.

Two days earlier, Henry and his forest crew were up at the top of South Ridge Road where an area of Corsican Pine had been clearfelled for fence post production. It was a simple burn-off, but as always, it had alarmed the townspeople because of the huge column of dense, brown smoke the put up. Henry was particular that not so much as a spark got into the post peelings, because they could smoulder away for weeks and burst into flame whenever a decent wind blew up. So they were careful.

He had a good view of the glow from the back of his house and immediately realised that the fire was at the top of South Ridge Road, and he was relieved because there were no leaping flames. He weighed the risks and decided to drive up there to see what was happening before he called the crew out. It only took ten minutes to get there. It was dark, but the darkness didn’t limit his vision at all. The original fire had burnt the dry material on the duff layer, but a couple of days of drying and the low humidity of the sou’wester made what remained tinder dry and some residual spark, probably from a stump had set it alight again! Sparks were blowing into a stand of Macrocarpas below, so Henry went down to check and found there was no burnable fuel on the forest floor so he wasn’t too concerned. He had forgotten to put his boots on and lost both slippers in a pool of mud! He didn’t bother to rescue them, instead, he made his way back to the truck in his stocking feet!

Back at forest headquarters, Henry opened the office and called Albert who he delegated the task of rousing the crew. Albert was to man the office because the conservancy big noises had to be informed, a diary of events had to be kept and Henry would need him as a gofer too. The gale was bitterly cold, so Henry went home for his overalls, his Swandri, dry socks and workboots. He downed half a pint of black coffee before racing back to headquarters to open the four-bay garage to ready the trucks and the fire gear. By the time the first of the crew arrived Henry had hitched the two fire trailers onto the trucks and had them ready to roll. Each fire trailer held only two hundred gallons of water, which is nothing when it comes to fighting a fire, but he had a plan up his sleeve. They had a Hale portable pump, and a few years ago, Henry had Mick bulldoze twin dew ponds in the farming property next the forest, where the fire was. There was a lot of water available there. Doug helped him lift the Hale onto the flatdeck, at the same time, he planned how best to tackle on the fire.

He assigned two of his men to use one of the trucks and a fire trailer to fight hotspots from the road where there were post peelings, and another two to ferry water between headquarters, where there was a quick-fill facility, and the fire. He personally manned the Hale pump, because there was a trick to priming it; you need three hands for the complicated process, or to be very quick with both hands! The other thing was that he couldn’t be certain that it would operate over an extended period because it was untested. Henry knew he could rely on Hooks to manage the two crews because it was a simple enough blaze, and a relatively small area of land.

From the pond, water was pumped across the paddock to the fire’s edge, where a bypass valve was installed with two leads which were to attack each flank. Things to take into account: You fight a fire from its flanks, never putting men in front of a fire. A fire burns more slowly downhill as this one was, despite the powerful wind, the fire wasn’t racing. Fuel is one of the factors that defines the ferocity of a fire, this one was in a pine-duff layer about two inches thick so the fire struggled to source oxygen, one of the other components a fire needs. Henry didn’t believe the fire was a huge danger to the rest of the forest, he did consider back-burning, but first instinct is always, ‘when there’s a fire in the forest, put it out!’

The Hale pump had ample capacity to serve the two nozzles, but Henry’s big problem was to keep himself warm! The wind was bitter and although he was wearing his overalls and Swandri, the wind found its way through. His legs were wet too because the pump intake had to be continually shifted as the pond level dropped. The pump would lose its prime and stop pumping if it sucked air. This meant that the pump had to be shifted too because the intake pipe couldn’t be lengthened. Hand-held radios kept everyone in contact, so he was able keep tabs on progress and to organise Albert to have Charlie with his dozer arrive at daylight. Albert was also tasked to update the weather forecast, even though Henry knew he could rely on a wind-drop at sunrise, at least for an hour or so.

From the reports over the radio, he was confident the fire was contained, but the Hale had used all the fuel he had on hand. He was conscious of the onset of hypothermia and knew he needed to move his cramped, chilled bones. Doug arrived to keep watch over the pump while Henry surveyed the firefighting effort. His men were active so unfeeling of the cold and they had pinched off both flanks, so the fire was indeed contained. It was safe enough for him to climb into the truck to pick up more fuel from headquarters. The heater in his truck and his near hypothermic condition quickly made him sleepy. Southridge Road has one long, straight stretch and that’s where he closed his eyes! Maybe the truck knew its way, or more likely Henry was lucky because he roused just where the road turned to wind down a steep cutting!

In response to Henry’s heads-up by radio, Albert had a cup of coffee waiting for him at the office and he had filled two more cans with petrol. By the time he was back up at the fire, the sun was peeping over the horizon and the wind was dropping. The fire was out but mopping up is the tedious part of any fire! They used the Hale to supply water for damping down anything that looked like it might erupt again, and even though the fire was beaten, Henry was pleased to see Charlie’s transporter arrive with his dozer on board.  There was a bonus too! Charlie had with him food and hot drink supplied by the firefighters’ wives, an arrangement that Henry had instigated at another fire some time ago. A fresh crew arrived at eight o’clock, and with Charlie, Henry sat down, warmed by the sun, keeping watch for wisps of smoke.

It had been a tough, bitterly cold night and a few men had worked hard to douse the fire. A job that needed to be done. But no Big Noises came to tell them, ‘Well done!’ Not even a letter! It was their expectation. But Henry made it up to them in other ways.

 


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