• Fire cautions in the Sierra Foothills

    by  • January 13, 2012 • Sierra Foothills, Weather, Winter • 5 Comments

    2012-1 10 Stolen car fire

    2012-1 10 Stolen car fire

    We took this photo up on the hill above our house, in the California Sierra foothills on  Tuesday. There is still fire danger out there and you can see the burned trees from 12 years ago.  This smoke above was from a stolen car set on fire.

    2001-8-21 North Fork Fire

    August 2001 North Fork Fire occurred 9 months after we bought our land and ubrned all our grass.

    Fire slowly spread through our property in August 2001 before we started to build, effectively ‘brushing it out’ without going too far up in the trees, thank goodness! One mile up the road was devastated as the fire built strength.

    Since moving here 6 years ago and really from the time we first bought the property in November 2000, we have become more and more aware of the danger of fire in the forest community.

    2007 Jan 20-Stolen car fire

    2007 Jan 20-Stolen car fire

    In 2007, we spotted a black plume of smoke off the road near Coulterville, Ca. As we turned off to investigate, we saw another stolen car fire and left immediately realizing that the perpetrators could still be nearby.  No cell service in the area, but we drove to the nearest telephone and the fire fighters had the fire under control within the hour.

    2007 Jan 20-Stolen car fire put out by fireman

    2007 Jan 20-Stolen car fire put out by fireman

    Realities

    The sobering fact is that our home and property, at the end of a 600 foot driveway, with no other exit and barely enough room for a fire truck to turn around, is one to which no fire chief would send his men.  A fire battalion chief friend, Ed, said, “The best precaution for you two, will be darn good home insurance.”  We got it. We also know that in case of fire, our firemen friends would do all in their power to help us.

    Mowing tarweed and other grass 100 feet around the house

    Mowing tarweed and other grass 100 feet around the house

    Our plan

    Besides getting good insurance, we have learned skills that reduce our fire danger here:

    • Clearing trees and shrubs close to the house.
    • Trimming trees ten foot around and ten feet up into the branches.
    • Mowing 100 feet around the house.
    • Keeping the garden vegetation watered and hydrated a much as possible during the summer and fall.
    • Keep premium, 100 foot, 1 inch diameter hoses near faucets on both sides of the property closest to the house.
    • If you have a well, install a 2500 gallon water storage tank with a fire hose connection. 
    • Plant plants that are fire resistant. Is there such? 
    Poppies pop up on this old burn pile. later a bullldozer buzzed through these to widen and reroute the driveway.

    Poppies pop up on this old burn pile. later a bullldozer buzzed through these to widen and reroute the driveway.

    How to do Burn piles

    Practicing burn pile safety was another skill taught to us by Ed, our fire battalion chief friend, who supervised our first few fires.  Burn piles are a reality when maintaining land near the forest as an alternative to hauling and dumping tree trimmings and brush into landfills.

    We had three or four oak trees that had to be felled to prepare the house pad in 2003. With no fireplace to burn even small logs, we had huge piles of branches that had to be cleared.  We stacked what firewood we could and burned the piles of branches on cold or misty days when the ashes would fall to the ground quickly.

    January 2003 Clearing and burning brush

    January 2003 Clearing and burning brush

     In our county, you obtain a burn permit and call a number each time to see if it is a ‘burn day’, one with little fire danger.  We have this number on speed dial.  Usually a burn day is a drizzly day or the days just before or after a rain. On these days you can see spot fires all through the Oakhurst Valley below Deadwood Peakand know that many are busy brushing out their properties.

    First burn pile and we start brushing out the property

    First burn pile and we start brushing out the property

    Equipment needed are rakes, a hose nearby and a gas can and lighter. With good size fires you need one person to start and feed the flame and one to watch for sparks and grass fires with the hose.  Our largest fires have been ones about the size of a car. Tractor Man comes out and compacts and pushes together the brush piles first, if possible. We’ve learned not to set cast off flannel shirts too close to the fire after having picked up one or two only to find it burned with a myriad of black singed holes.

    Uses for burn piles in the garden

    Brush piles burn fast and hot. You make sure to site your fire 10 feet out from the crown of any tree, ideally in a wide open area. You burn pretty close to where you’re working, though, and as you move from area to area, you learn to drag branches down to your fire not up

    It all over soon and we keep watch over the smoldering grey ash under it stops smoking.  Locals don’t always do this and it’s unnerving to spot unattended burn piles, still smoking though only inches high.  We tend to use the same spot over and over.

    2001-11 Veteran's Day, 3 months after fire and new grass is already sprouting thickly.

    2001-11 Veteran’s Day, 3 months after fire and new grass is already sprouting thickly.

    After the fire has cooled and left blackened ground, there are uses for the garden. Old burn piles can be planted with wildflowers.  This is one of a few photos taken after the 2001, showing the brown, burned manzanita, charred oak tree trunks and the grizzled mountain beyond. Green grass popped up after Fall rains and the neighbors commented slyly that we’d have little brushing to do this year.

    If you dig down under the singed earth of an old burn pile, you find crumbly loam similar to potting soil and can be used for just that purpose!  This I read about in a book written by a old woman, (a young gardener…) who advised that all her potted plants grew unbelievably well in this soil. I dig for this ‘potting soil’ beneath old burn piles, and it works well to balance my low acid native soil in all my patio pots.

    Smoke on Peckinpah Mountain, directly across from our property.

    Smoke on Peckinpah Mountain, directly across from our property.

    Aftermath of the August 2001 fire

    The man who accidentally set this fire across the road from us by using a gas powered tool,, had two million dollar policies on his house.  To defray the costs of fighting what was called the North Fork Fire, the state of California collected the full amount on both.

    August 2001 On Labor Day weekend a week after the fire, we sat out at night watching spot fire acroos the valley.

    August 2001 On Labor Day weekend a week after the fire, here from the house pad, we sat out at night watching spot fire across the valley. Sixty five percent of the mountain burned.

    This is the forest land just above our home where the fire burned much hotter.  We were fortunately spared this result.

    This is the forest land just above our home where the fire burned much hotter. We were fortunately spared this result.

    About

    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    5 Responses to Fire cautions in the Sierra Foothills

    1. January 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      Wow!
      Sue, this is the best thing I’ve seen so far on fire in the foothills and our relationship with it. Before moving here we took several tours of the area and couldn’t figure out the significance of the burned circles we saw by every home or the tiny houses that we later learned covered the well pumps. When we built our house we had a close call that gave us a new respect for fire. After grading the pad for the house the bulldozers left a giant pile of wood, brush, and tree trunks. (We also lost a couple of beautiful trees.) It had been a wet Winter that turned into a lush Spring, so feeling pretty safe we doused that giant pile with diesel and set it on fire. The screaming sound of a fire as it takes a breath before unleashing is something I hope I never hear again. Within a few minutes we knew that fire was not going to be easily contained. The well had no power yet so we drove our truck to the creek and filled up paint buckets and threw them on the fire again and again until that sound stopped. It was the scariest day of our lives. I never thought to look under a burn pile for good soil the way you do under a compost pile. Good tip.

    2. January 15, 2012 at 12:59 am

      I have just been in Victoria where one day of fires killed over 100 people. I was still in sight of the city towers when I passed a sign for “Kings Lake” a township where many of those died. It was chilling and scary. While the fire risk is not high currently, I felt more comfortable that at that intersection I was turning away rather than towards it. Best wishes and be safe. Kerry.

    3. January 15, 2012 at 8:05 am

      Katie, thanks so much for your thoughts. Fire safety near the forest is something on which we had to be educated after coming from the ‘flatlands’ and having friends in the fire fighting field sure helped. A near miss like what you experience is sure impressive and you never forget it! Many of us never feel true fear in our lives.

      Kerry, that fire sounds devastating! It must have swept through extremely fast if so many people were trapped. Burned areas do have an eerie feeling, sad…and ghostly. If our land had burned out completely in 2001, I know we would not have gone ahead to build here. Sobering fact.

    4. January 15, 2012 at 11:07 pm

      Good that you helped catch the car fires before they got out of control. As much as fire is part of the natural cycle your experience definitely highlights the role humans have in making it occur at frequent intervals that are far from natural.Stay safe. It looks like you’re doing so many things right. You live in such a great place. It’s definitely worth the trouble.

    5. January 17, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Thanks, James. We’re doing what we can to preserve and add beauty to our already awesome place. The danger from gas powered tools is a real one. Few think to have a hose nearby when doing chain sawing, chipping or anything else that would spark. And stolen cars? Idiots! We say “stupidity can not be legislated.”

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