Ranger Diary: Fire Assignment

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DAY FOUR: August 15, 2013
Topic of the Day: Exploring

A few days ago I drove south and east to the Malheur National Forest. I’m a fire effects monitor. It’s an odd little job in the wildland fire world, a combination of lookout and fuels technician (I’ve been both). Sometimes I get dropped off on a mountaintop to observe and document fire movement and behavior. Or I’ll do the same thing on a prescribed burn. Before this trip I’ve always worked solo, but this time I’m with three other FEMOs from around the country. We are watching two fires: one in the Monument Rock Wilderness and the other in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. This is eastern Oregon, the southern end of the Blue Mountains Range. Unlike the Cascades, there are no volcanoes or glaciers here. But they are mountains all the same.

I was hoping for one of those mountaintop gigs, but no. I return to a motel room each night.

Today we visited the High Lake Fire in the Strawberry Mountains. Lightning came down in the drought-stricken forest over a week ago and the fire crept and torched its way around 66 acres. Fire has a certain way of behaving in high elevation subalpine fir forest, and it’s kind of messy. It smolders around in the duff, consuming small sticks and logs. Sometimes on hot afternoons flames gather enough heat to spring into the pitchy boughs of the firs. Fire races to the top of the tree sending a shower of sparks to another tree. The sound of torching zips and sizzles like a million water droplets on a hot stove. All that remains is a blackened skeleton after the foliage volatilizes into the air.

Suppression action was taken on this fire. Crews cut some fireline and let the flames run up into rocks where the went out. A helicopter with a bucket made water drops on the ridgetop to keep spot fires from colonizing the next drainage. Firefighters ran hoses from the lake and sprayed water on hot spots. When it had all been cooled down, they withdrew to rest and get ready to chase the next smoke. Then the monitors came in to observe.

Today was for hiking to High lake, poking around in the ashes to look for smoke and heat. The fire weather forecast told us there is a Red Flag Warning for thunderstorms with abundant lightning. The wind blew hard from the southwest and cumulus scudded along, their bottoms growing increasingly dark. The weather observation spot is by a big whitebark pine on the wilderness boundary. Back from our hike, we watched mountain goats through binoculars and remembered to also check for smoke. Wind squealed through the wind gauge, gusting to 15 mph. It was cold enough to send us to the truck for sweatshirts. Clark’s nutcrackers sailed from pine to pine, delighting in flight and their raucous voices. I felt a deep fondness for the whitebark pines, tough conifers of high ridges. These Blue Mountains ones are vigorous and apparently healthy, not plagued by the blister rust that has killed so many in my part of the country. It’s good to see them thriving. The nutcrackers too.

We go back there tomorrow, unless something changes.

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