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Greatest Enemy Of The Forest Fire

( Originally Published 1922 )

Our forests are exposed to destruction by many enemies, the worst of which is fire. From 8,000,000 to 12,000,000 acres of forest lands annually are burned over by destructive fires. These fires are started in many different ways. They may be caused by sparks or hot ashes from a locomotive. Lightning strikes in many forests every summer, particularly those of the Western States, and ignites many trees. In the South people sometimes set fires in order to improve the grazing. Settlers and farmers who are clearing land often start big brush fires that get out of their control. Campers, tourists, hunters, and fishermen are responsible for many forest fires by neglecting to extinguish their campfires. Sparks from logging engines also cause fires. Cigar and cigarette stubs and burning matches carelessly thrown aside start many forest fires. Occasionally fires are also maliciously set by evil-minded people.

The officers of the National Forests in the West have become very expert in running down. the people who set incendiary fires. They collect evidence at the scene of the fire, such as pieces of letters and envelopes, matches, lost handkerchiefs and similar articles. They hunt for foot tracks and hoof marks. They study automobile tire tracks. They make plaster of Paris impressions of these tracks. They follow the tracks sometimes Indian fashion. Often there are peculiarities about the tracks which lead to the detection and punishment of the culprits. A horse may be shod in an unusual manner; a man may have peculiar hob nails or rubber heels on his boots or else his footprints may show some deformity. The forest rangers play the parts of detectives very well. This novel police work has greatly reduced the number of incendiary fires.

A forest fire may destroy in a few hours trees that required hundreds of years to grow. A heavy stand of timber may be reduced to a desolate waste because some one forgot to put out a campfire. Occasionally large forest fires burn farm buildings and homes and kill hundreds of people. During the dry summer season when a strong wind is blowing, the fire will run for many miles. It always leaves woe and desolation in its wake. A mammoth forest fire in Wisconsin many years ago burned over an area of two thou-sand square miles. It killed about fourteen hundred people and destroyed many millions of dollars worth of timber and other property. A big forest fire in Michigan laid waste a tract forty miles wide and one hundred and eighty miles long. More than four billion feet of lumber, worth $10,000,000, was destroyed and several hundred people lost their lives. In recent years, a destructive forest fire in Minnesota caused a loss of $25,000,000 worth of timber and property.

There are several different kinds of forest fires. Some burn unseen two to four feet beneath the surface of the ground. Where the soil contains much peat, these fires may persist for weeks or even months. Sometimes, they do not give off any noticeable smoke. Their fuel is the decaying wood, tree roots and similar material in the soil. These underground fires can be stopped only by flooding the area or by digging trenches down to the mineral soil. The most effectual way to fight light surface fires is to throw sand or earth on the flames. Where the fire has not made much headway, the flames can sometimes be beaten out with green branches, wet gunny sacks or blankets. The leaves and debris may be raked away in a path so as to impede their advance.

Usually in the hardwood forests, there is not much cover, such as dry leaves, on the ground. Fires in these forests destroy the seedlings and saplings, but do not usually kill the mature trees. However, they damage the base of the trees and make it easy for fungi and insects to enter. They also burn the top soil and reduce the water-absorbing powers of the forest floor. In thick, dense evergreen forests where the carpet is heavy, fires are much more serious. They frequently kill the standing trees, burning trunks and branches and even following the roots deep into the ground. Dead standing trees and logs aid fires of this kind. The wind sweeps pieces of burning bark or rotten wood great distances to kindle new fires. When they fall, dead trees scatter sparks and embers over a wide belt. Fires also run along the tops of the coniferous trees high above the ground. These are called "crown-fires" and are very difficult to control.

The wind plays a big part in the intensity of a forest fire. If the fire can be turned so that it will run into the wind, it can be put out more easily. Fires that have the wind back of them and plenty of dry fuel ahead, speed on their way of destruction at a velocity of 5 to 10 miles an hour, or more. They usually destroy everything in their course that will burn, and waste great amounts of valuable timber. Wild animals, in panic, run together before the flames. Settlers and farmers with their families flee. Many are overtaken in the mad flight and perish. The fierce fires of this type can be stopped only by heavy rain, a change of wind, or by barriers which provide no fuel and thus choke out the flames.

Large fires are sometimes controlled by back-firing. A back-fire is a second fire built and so directed as to run against the wind and toward the main fire. When the two fires meet, both will go out on account of lack of fuel. When properly used by experienced persons, back-fires are very effectual. In inexperienced hands they are dangerous, as the wind may change suddenly or they may be lighted too soon. In such cases they often become as great a menace as the main fire. Another practical system of fighting fires is to make fire lines around the burning area. These fire lines or lanes as they are sometimes called, are stretches of land from which all trees and shrubs have been removed. In the centre of the lines a narrow trench is dug to mineral soil or the lines are plowed or burned over so that they are bare of fuel. Such lines also are of value around woods and grain fields to keep the fire out. They are commonly used along railroad tracks where locomotive sparks are a constant source of fire dangers.

Our forests, on account of their great size and the relatively small man force which guards them, are more exposed to fire dangers than any other woodlands in the world. The scant rainfall of many of the western states where great unbroken areas of forest are located increases the fire damages. The fact that the western country in many sections is sparsely settled favors destruction by forest fires. The prevalence of lightning in the mountains during the summer adds farther to the danger. One of the most important tasks of the rangers in the Federal forests is to prevent forest fires.

During the fire season, extra forest guards are kept busy hunting for signs of smoke through-out the forests. The lookouts in their high towers, which overlook large areas of forest, watch constantly for smoke, and as soon as they locate signs of fire they notify the supervisor of the forest. Lookouts use special scientific instruments which enable them to locate the position of the fires from the smoke. At the supervisor's headquarters and the ranger stations scattered through the forests, equipment, horses and auto-mobiles are kept ready for instant use when a fire is reported. Telephone lines and radio sets are used to spread the news about fires that have broken out.

From five thousand to six thousand forest fires occur each year in the National Forests of our country. To show how efficient the forest rangers are in fighting fires, it is worthy of note that by their prompt actions, 80 per cent. of these fires are confined to areas of less than ten acres each, while only 20 per cent. spread over areas larger than ten acres. Lightning causes from 25 to 30 per cent. of the fires. The remaining 70 or 75 per cent. are classed as "man-caused fires," which are set by campers, smokers, railroads, brush burners, sawmills and incendiaries. The total annual loss from forest fires in the Federal forests varies from a few hundred thousands of dollars in favorable years to several million in particularly bad fire seasons. During the last few years, due to efficient fire fighting methods, the annual losses have been steadily reduced.

The best way of fighting forest fires is to pre-vent them. The forest officers do their best to reduce the chances for fire outbreak in the Government woodlands. They give away much dead timber that either has fallen or still is standing. Lumbermen who hold contracts to cut timber in the National Forest are required to pile and burn all the slashings. Dry grass is a serious fire menace. That is why grazing is encouraged in the forests. Rangers patrol the principal automobile roads to see that careless campers and tourists have not left burning campfires. Railroads are required to equip their locomotives with spark-arresters. They also are obliged to keep their rights of way free of material which burns readily. Spark-arresters are required also on logging engines.

The National and State Forests are posted with signs and notices asking the campers and tourists to be careful with campfires, tobacco and matches. Advertisements are run in newspapers, warning people to be careful so as not to set fire to the forests. Exhibits are made at fairs, shows, community meetings and similar gatherings, showing the dangers from forest fires and how these destructive conflagrations may be con-trolled. Every possible means is used to teach the public to respect and protect the forests.

For many years, the United States Forest Service and State Forestry Departments have been keeping a record of forest fires and their causes. Studies have been made of the length and character of each fire season. Information has been gathered concerning the parts of the forest where lightning is most likely to strike or where campfires are likely to be left by tourists. The spots or zones of greatest fire danger are located in this way and more forest guards are placed in these areas during the dangerous fire season. Careful surveys of this kind are aiding greatly in reducing the number of forest fires.

In trying to get all possible information about future weather conditions, the Forestry Departments cooperate with the United States Weather Bureau. When the experts predict that long periods of dry weather or dangerous storms are approaching, the forest rangers are especially watchful, as during such times, the menace to the woods is greatest. The rangers also have big fire maps which they hang in their cabins. These maps show the location of dangerous fire areas, roads, trails, lookout-posts, cities, towns and ranches, sawmills, logging camps, telephone lines, fire tool boxes and other data of value to fire fighters. All this information is so arranged as to be readily available in time of need. It shows where emergency fire fighters, tools and food supplies can be secured, and how best to attack a fire in any certain district. A detailed plan for fighting forest fires is also prepared and kept on file at every ranger station.

The following are six rules which, if put in practice, will help prevent outbreaks of fires :

1. Matches. Be sure your match is out. Break it in two before you throw it away.

2. Tobacco. Throw pipe ashes and cigar or cigarette stubs in the dust of the road and stamp or pinch out the fire before leaving them. Don't throw them into the brush, leaves or needles.

3. Making camp. Build a small campfire. Build it in the open, not against a tree or log, or near brush. Scrape away the trash from all around it.

4. Leaving camp. Never leave a campfire, even for a short time, without quenching it with water or earth. Be sure it is OUT.

5. Bonfires: Never build bonfires in windy weather or where there is the slightest danger of their escaping from control. Don't make them larger than you need.

6. Fighting fires. If you find a fire, try to put it out. If you can't, get word of it to the nearest United States forest ranger or State fire warden at once.

Remember "minutes count" in reporting forest fires.

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