Sunday, March 28, 2004

Through my own stupidity I came close to getting seriously hurt yesterday, as well as starting a brushfire that would have been pretty damn hard to stop. The weather was fairly decent for burning and I have several good-sized brushpiles that need to be cleaned up, so I called and got a burning permit.

I started the small pile to burning and then headed over across the creek to set the big one. The last time I tried to burn it I did not have much success and didn't expect much success this time either. I got it going on the south end and headed back to the barn to get the trackloader.

I had to jump the Cat off, the batteries are getting weak again, that took a few minutes. I headed back down to my first fire, stopping on the way to push up a third pile I was going to try to burn later in the day. At the first burn pile, I stopped again and pushed it up some more so that the stumps would burn.

Then the wind picked up. I looked over at the big pile and saw that it was blazing merrily away, but it seemed to be moving. I kicked the loader up into second (I almost always operate the loader in first gear because of the condition of the undercarriage) and headed to my big fire which appeared to be getting away from me.

When I got to my big fire I saw that it had got into some pine trees and was moving rapidly towards the woods about fifty yards away. About this time the wind picked up again. Dry pine needles burn fast and put out a LOT of smoke. I rolled around and got in front of the fire and set the bucket into the ground and tried to cut a trench in front of the fire.

I say "tried" because the fire was moving faster than I was (wind picked up again). I was soon enveloped in smoke so thick I couldn't see three feet in front of me. I held my breath and started backing out. By this time the fire had made it up to the loader and evidently hit a thick spot in the pine needles, because I burned the hair off my left arm.

The smoke was too thick for me to get in front of the fire, by this time it's only about twenty feet from the edge of the woods. I'm thinking it's time to call the forestry department. Only problem is, my cellphone is in the truck... at the barn.

Now before anybody thinks I'm a complete jackass with no regard for public safety, even if the fire got completely out of control, it would have only went about five hundred yards before reaching a green pasture (which wouldn't burn) to the north and a creek to the west (wind was out of the southeast). Being out of the smoke, I could've easily plowed a firebreak to the east. I would like to burn out all that mess and get rid of the scrub, but I'd much rather do that with a little more planning and have the forestry service folks on hand when I did it.

Of course I'm not thinking of this at the time. I was in "oh shit" mode. I manuvered around and got behind the smoke and was able to push a bucket full of dirt over the northeast corner of the fire, but by this time it had reached the woods. Luckily the fire was only about twenty feet wide now, so I was well on my way to having things under control... until I came to my senses long enough to notice the motor in the Cat going "peckpeckpeckpeck." This was the hardest I've ran the damn thing in years. I may very well have damaged the motor (don't know for sure, it could be a fuel thing).

I go into "oh shit" mode again.

Then, miraculously the wind died down. I also noticed that the leaves weren't burning like the pine needles had been. The flames were not as high and it was moving much more slowly. I cut the loader off and walked through the scrub and stomped the fire out (all the time thinking of the Jerry Clower story about Uncle Versey and the fire).

I find myself guilty of hubris, but I (re)learned some lessons;

(1) Keep my cellphone in my pocket
(2) Have the loader sitting there running before I play arsonist
(3) Don't get in front of a fire and try to put it out when the wind is moving it straight towards me
(4) If I'm within a hundred yards of a wooded area, plow a firebreak around the damn thing
(5) Don't try to burn more than one at a time, that necessitates leaving one unattended

We did get the flats fixed on the roadgrader this week, and I was able to learn how to operate it Saturday after my firebug incident. That is a neat machine. It is amazing what a skilled operator can do with one. It's remarkable what an idiot like me can do with it.

I brought the loader up to the barn this morning, it may not be a big deal after all. It's still making that pecking racket, but it doesn't seem to be coming from the engine itself. May get lucky and have it be a fuel problem.