Western Forest Fires, A Different Animal


Forest fires are problems every year in West Virginia.   Volunteer fire departments and crews from the West Virginia Division of Forestry spend countless hours hauling hand tools up rugged hillsides and digging firebreaks to stop the spread of a blaze that slowly creeps along the forest floor.  

Here in West Virginia a large number of forest fires are started by the carelessness of man–or the malicious nature of him.    Foresters tell me a large majority of forest fires in the state are the result of arson.  The actions result in thousands of dollars in property damage every year, largely wiping out large stands of timber or leaving them unguarded against future decay and insect infestation.

However, our fires here in West Virginia are a mere drop in the bucket to what firefighters in the western United States endure during the long, hot months of summer.     Drought conditions and parched evergreen forests of the west create ample conditions for a spark that quickly turns into a raging inferno.

"Your fire season is early, early spring or late fall when the leaves have come down.  There’s a lot of ground surface fuel.  Intensity levels are about 10-to-15 feet at their worst–that’s the flame length going with the wind," said Mike Dannenberg a fire suppression supervisor with the Federal Bureau of Land Management in Montana and the Dakotas

Dannenberg explains western wild fires are a very different and much more dangerous event.   Amazingly, most of those western fires begin with a lightening strike which touches off a blaze amid dry pine needles and ground clutter.   The fires of the west are actually a "cleansing" of the forest by Mother Nature in those regards. 

"Fire is a natural agent and a lot of our ecology is based on the fact that fire needs to be part of that ecosystem," said Dannenberg. "The problem that we’re faced with is that fire is a friend and doing some good for the ecosystem, but as soon as we put human beings or society in its path it becomes a foe and fire is the enemy."

Many times, humans place themselves in harms way without even realizing they’ve done it.   The dream of many Americans is a vacation cabin in the high mountains.  However, in the western United States that can be a recipe for disasters.   We often see the news reports on television of entire housing developments burned to the ground in the way of a raging wildfire.   That can be avoided if proper precautions are followed.

"I liken it to building in a flood plane," said Dannenberg. "If you thin around your house, if you reduce the fuel load, if you build out of materials that are not combustible a lot of times it will protect your home."

Federal land and forestry officials have guidelines for building in a remote region.  Rule number one is to remove trees near the structure and leave a buffer zone around a home site of several hundred feet.  The clear will create a firebreak to stop a fast moving blaze.   Another key consideration, according to Dannenberg, is building with a metal roof.   A shake shingle roof is the most volatile roof you can put on top of a home or storage building.  Unfortunately, it’s among the more popular roof construction materials for a mountain home.  

"Metal roof, sometime of cement or hardy plane siding, things like that will protect a house," said Dannenberg.

Unlike forest fires of the east, fires in the western United States don’t move through the ground clutter and root systems–they jump straight up the tree to the canopy in a scenario where dry trees will at time literally explode.  The flammable sap of an evergreen can cause a tree to become a combustible bomb under the right conditions.  It makes stopping the fire impossible and controlling it a dangerous proposition.

"We have to hit it before those worst case scenario conditions," said Dannenberg. "We keep at the backside of that fire and try to pinch it off.  In our fires nobody tries to get out ahead of the fire.  That would be a fatal situation."

Dannenberg has created a demonstration model to show the intensity of a canopy fire.  He loads a pegboard with hundreds of match sticks.  Each match represents a highly combustible evergreen tree.  A road snakes through the middle of the model forest.  The upper corner of the board features a homestead with a house, garage, and various outbuildings.  The scene is created to the specs recommended by the BLM.   Each building is covered with a metal roof and the yard space has only sparse and wide spaced trees.  

Dannenberg tilts the board to replicate the speed of a fire moving up the slope of a hill or mountain.  He lights a single match at the far end of the pegboard and at the foot of the simulated hill.   The fire spreads rapidly, but stops short of the home–leaving it untouched.   It’s an effective demonstration that Dannenberg says plays itself out every summer in the western United States.   


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