April 2008 Fire Story
Thurs April 17
A Sweet Thursday it was not, though it started out gently enough. Foreknowledge of what was to come likely would not have helped much, what came was so bad. A video crew was anticipated, (they didn't arrive until Saturday). That freed up some time after chores and checking the horses and searching part of the big swamp for invasives. The swamp terrain is as bad as the bush, with the added fillip that sometimes its not possible to tell how deep the water really is.
So I thought take a walk to the farms edge since the view is so pretty. At the ridge I looked south and saw a huge smoke cloud. A racing trip with the truck to the south end of the Preserve showed almost all of the two mile by half mile field across the south end of the Preserve engulfed. This is where the three stallions still at large live and I can only pray that Achernar, with the damaged lungs, has been able to stay up wind of the smoke. Who knows how much there will be left for them to eat?.
And while part of our fence line had turned the fire away from the immediate Preserve, (we found extensive damage later) the stallion area was ablaze. We fought for six hours to turn the front to the new fire break road. Though the tractor hauled water that I pumped and the men hauled in five gallon jugs (40 lbs each), we just couldnt get enough on the front and it kept breaking out again. We burned out an expensive 12v pump, fortunately we had a back up. Still, it was useless. Imagine carrying 40 lbs. of water in a back pack sprayer over the broken, sometimes still hot rocks, vines pulling at every step, the rig snagging on vines, reaching through poison wood to snuff one last flame, falling down, not knowing how one got up, feeling optimistic only to turn a corner and see the front stretching away again. And the men did this carrying two jugs apiece.
Jean fearlessly drove the tractor over freshly burned ground to bring water and to scout. To no avail. The only thing in our favor is the wind pushing against the fire, and hope for a deep dew. Perhaps in the morning well be able to stop it before it flares again.
On our way to check the truck at the other end of the front we crossed the bottom of the preserve along the field edge. We found probably a quarter mile of fence destroyed. There was simply no time to be terrified on this wild ride through the still smoking bush, except in retrospect as the Messy Fergusson plowed through dust, cinders, smoke, lurching into potholes leaping over logs (as all the horrifying illustrations in the operator manual flashed in my mind-- avoid steep hills, sharp turns, etc.). No cushion on top of the steel fender, sitting cross legged provided a bit of spring, hanging on to a rope thrown round the sheet steel sun roof and hiking out at the same time trying to not get my head smashed into the side of the sun roof as we did everything but Immelmans.
After we gave up the fighting, we pulled fence in the stallion area. We have been trying so hard to get ahead with it, now we have gone a long way backwards. We pulled several thousand feet of double fence line. Jean hauled, I coiled. Not fun, bent double, trying to kept the rope straight. I tried a pull, couldnt do it, and Im used to hauling up 50 lbs. of anchor. It did get easier toward the end, but I dont know how Jean and Avener did it.
By the tine we staggered back to the base, the moon was well up and it was a small pleasure to see the solar powered lights and butterflies glowing at the compound to welcome us. It is way too late so Im spending the night, will sleep in the car after I calm down some, though this may be difficult with night birds shrieking at random and the dogs going off at the moon at least and who knows what else.
And I havent mentioned yet the rage; deep, unadulterated rage against whomever set this thing off. Who pays us for the mens overtime? Who pays us for whatever physical damage our bodies have incurred? Who pays for the fence that needs to be replaced, the fuel used in truck and tractor. Who replaces the forage that keeps the horses alive? Who pays if we lose Achernar? Our donors, thats who, the people who are trying to help us keep the horses alive, not the people responsible. They accept no responsibility, and no one demands it of them. Instead we have to deal (yet again) with the horrific results of other peoples stupidity and greed: setting illegal fires (during a dry period with 25 k winds) for illegal plantings by residents of a slum that shouldnt even exist any more.
Friday, April 18, blew by and was too tired to write. However, after fighting for four or five hours to contain the thing it was obvious that we still could not deal with a half mile long front moving up the stallion area. The men continued to haul the water jugs but we could not stop it. On area would be doused, it would pop out somewhere else. More fence was pulled and the plan was made to drop back to a road about half way across the preserve. This was one of two that weve been able to get bull dozed. So, already tired, we weed whacked about a half mile of cross road to make a broad path between the new road and the old road. While it was hoped that this would contain the fire, even if it jumped the new road and destroyed a lot of forest, the immediate preserve would be OK. The day ended with a half mile dash with the back pack blower for final clearing of the cross road. In one day I used a week whacker, back pack sprayer, back pack blower and a machete, and pumped full and loaded at least two dozen five gallon jugs. Then unloaded them. I went back to MH. This was a 12 hour day. Non stop, no lunch, just swigs of water and juice and once in a while a snack bar. Tomorrow will tell us whether we will win or not.
Saturday, April 19. The morning was slow. All we could do was sit and stare for hours as the wall of smoke and flame crept towards us. We had all the tools ready, all the water jugs filled. We had about a half mile wide front to watch at the north end of a rectangle with the new road on one side, the old road on the other and the cross road between. With the front moving between the two long roads, and up the rectangle heading for the cross road. We had to watch both side roads, especially the side along the Preserve, as well as the front coming at the cross road. (The fire had already jumped from the stallion area east into the rest of the conservation area, but it was moving away from us. A potential problem if it went north and then turned back on us into an area not yet burned. Still, not as immediate a threat as what was coming at us.
It finally hit the cross road and the men were frantic for a while making sure it would not jump the road. The fire was making its own wind and great clouds of smoke surrounded the men. They contained it at the cross road, and then it began to eat its way west along the cross road, back toward the Preserve.
After about two hours it came to a corner at a gate in the cross road, and they began to chase it along this fence. If it crossed this fence line it would be back in the Preserve so the men had to follow the rough rocky fence line trail with those water jugs and the back pack sprayer. I killed the corner, Meanwhile the front was reaching the side of the old road and moving up along it so the fire front was now U shaped. It was smoky on the old road and I got to do my share of nose mopping and coughing. I was able to run the truck up and down the road to keep an eye on things, there still were no flames on the road itself, but it took some determination,
Jean came and we both cleared a few spots in the fence line that would have let the fire double back along the road yet again. Then we went back to where the fire was working its way into the final corner. Rather than let it reach the fence line again we all took to the bush and ran along with it, dousing it as we went. Over the rocks, through the vines and poison wood, the men with the heavy jugs, me with the back pack sprayer; I could carry this on my shoulders, I couldnt handle the bulk of a regular jug.
How can poor Achernar have made it with those damaged lungs?
I told the men to come when they could, not to rush. And when they did they checked for fire again and started to mend the fence. By afternoon the fire in the Preserve flared again, but the wind was pushing it way from us. It was huge, you could see smoke from several fronts from the highway.
Jean said today that during Sunday night he was very worried, he could see the flames shooting up two miles to the east. But eventually the cooling temperature and dew calmed it down. I dont remember much of the rest of the day except still dealing with brief bouts of nausea from too much adrenaline, and fairly bad depression. Let down, concerned for the future, I slept; it seemed to help.
Ruin, as far as the eye could see, though grasses already were pushing up.
Patches of green vine, the horses' favorite forage, had survived. And in the middle of one of the green oases
Hadar and Achernar, safe. We don't know if either will suffer any deterioration, only time will tell, but at least we still have them for now. And soon the stallions will be on the preserve where we can watch them every day.
My walking tick survived too, right where I'd dropped it weeks ago.
We are slowly getting back to normal. Im always amazed at how one slides into crisis mode and just plows on, and then it takes rather a long time to come back.