Living Off Grid – Forest Fire

Reader Contribution by Ed Essex
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 We heard they had a fire here about 15 years ago, a pretty bad one. I know the people we bought this land from were very concerned. They cut all of the low limbs off the trees both large and small and cleaned them up and either burned them in their wood stove or got rid of them some other way. This place looked like a park when we bought it. They had done the whole lower 20 acres and started on the upper 20. They mowed what they could and even had a fire fighting system of sorts they were working on. We heard at one time they had an old tanker truck up here.

Last August we found out firsthand what all the concern was about. It was about 3:30 p.m. and I was headed down the hill to the post office to pick up a package. It is only a few miles away. Driving down our access road I noticed a cloud of smoke just a mile away or so. It looked like it was down near the highway.
When I arrived at the post office a few minutes later someone came flying out the door with two fire extinguishers in her hand. She shouted at someone behind her that “it just jumped the highway”
Well, how smart was I? I was starting to get it. I needed to get back home – fast.

By the time I hit our access road the helicopter was circling overhead dumping water on the fire. I made it home and told Laurie to gather our important papers and put them in the truck and then go gather the horses and put them in the corral. I took the truck down to the barn and hooked up the horse trailer “just in case” and then went and hooked all the hoses up to the faucets and hydrants.  Our neighbor Tim came over to discuss what was going on. We figured we had some time before we would be really threatened if it continued to come up the hill and then turn and come towards us.

I jumped in the utility vehicle and drove across our property to get past the trees so I could see what was going on. I couldn’t believe it. The wind had picked up and the fire made it even worse and the fire did go up the hill and turn 90 degrees and come right at us. I drove back to the house and told Laurie she needed to get the horses out ” NOW”! I’m sure she understood the reason for the “enhanced inflection” in my tone. The fire was coming and it was coming fast.

(Spousal Editor Laurie would like me to insert a note here): “Readers – if you own a horse, please make sure they will load into a trailer without a fuss. It can mean the difference between saving your animals or not.”

Once Laurie and the animals were safely on their way, I went into the house and put on my Nomex (fire resistant) coveralls that I had saved from when I used to have construction work in the refineries. I went down to the barn and made sure it was all closed up and brought the tractor up to the house and settled down to wait.

About 10 minutes later two people from the forest service (federal) and/or DNR (state) showed up at the house to look everything over and see what they needed to defend the house. Their truck was soon followed by two more, each with a 3 man crew. The local volunteer firefighters from 20 miles away were also involved. I can’t say enough about these people, all three services, and their combined response to save my property and the two other properties with dwellings that lay in the path of this fire. Before it was over there were over 140 firefighters involved.

It turns out; they didn’t have to do anything to protect our house and barn. My house is built out of concrete and metal. All non combustibles. Add to that the land is cleared to at least 100′ around the house and barn. All trees that might have been a problem have been removed. (They did get burned but only in our masonry heater). I felt good about the compliments that came our way from the professionals. We had made a conscious effort to be self sufficient in the case of fire and apparently we got it right. All the soffits and the entire underside of our lean-tos, carport, woodshed and covered porch roofs are covered in metal. There is no exposed wood anywhere to burn. We don’t have bird hole vents in our attic but rather chose to use perforated metal in the soffits and ridge vent at the peak for ventilation. One of the biggest causes of fire getting into the attic from outside is the wind created by the fire blowing embers into the bird hole venting and into the attic.

I used the tractor to cut fire lines around the house because there was natural high grass that could burn. Note to self: cut the grass next year. Before I could finish, a firefighting bulldozer arrived and cut a really nice dirt filled swath around the house, barn, and even the garden. He had come from the origin of the fire two miles away, in the black of night, up a steep hill, and just kept going along the edge of the fire trying to help contain it. I know a lot about equipment operators and this guy was good!

What eventually stopped the fire besides the efforts of the firefighters, were the efforts of my neighbors who kept the grass mowed around their houses and along our access road. You can see the effect in the picture to the left. Before it was over this fire consumed over 400 acres.

It was stopped and contained within 24 hours but the firefighters were vigilant 24/7 for over a week and continued to come back and check for a few more weeks after that. I have red spots on my solar panels and green metal roof from the retardant they dumped from the airplanes but I don’t care, they’re not burnt. We lost some trees but will use them for firewood. One neighbor lost a lot of trees but his dwellings were all kept safe. New trees will grow and the horses will enjoy the fresh green grass this spring.

Our biggest casualty was Laurie’s personal Ponderosa Pine tree snag. Sadly, the Kestrels and other birds and animals will all have to find a new home next year. In the meantime we’ll be growing more trees as fast as we can and keeping a sharp eye on the horizon.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website

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