SATURdAy, JUNE 30, 2012
After Jeffrey Lee finishes digging out a hot spot, Jimmie Tointigh shoots water into the hole. The squad carries the water A moSAic of burnt, scorched and still-green trees flank a cold training squad searching for hot spots Thursday at the Weber Fire. on their backs. JOURNAL/SAm GREEN
Firefighters use the back of their hands to test for heat From Page 1A back to life, pushed by gusting winds. A hot spot is located. Three squad members move to the location, digging up the ground and watering down the ash to cool the heat and extinguish the spark. Steam, smoke and ash float into the air as the spot is uncovered. The ground sizzles as the spray of water hits hot coal and ash, rendering the potential trouble spot impotent. A bare hand is lowered to test the temperature. Only when the squad is certain the heat is gone do they move on, continuing their precise search for more hot spots. The work is detailed and hands on. Long after the planes and helicopters have done their work, it’s the firefighters on the ground who complete the task. “This is real firefighting,” Escalanti says, leaning on her pulaski fire tool while she watches her crew work the area. “This has to be done to ensure fires end up controlled.” Cold trailing efforts focus most often on places where fire can lie dormant for extended periods of time. Tree trunks and roots, dead fall, holes in the ground that soak up ash. These places provide a perfect environment for fire to linger, biding its time before reemerging as a powerful blaze. Dry conditions haven’t helped in terms of ensuring the Weber Fire is under control, according to Patrick Doyle, a strike team leader trainee out of Lassen National Park in California. As of Friday morning, the containment of the fire is at 45 percent. “The fuel moisture is so low here that the tree roots themselves are holding heat,” says Doyle, sifting through the ash at his feet. “We are not getting the recovery at night that we need. Below the ground, it is still burning.” The fact that the ground still burns when the flames on the hillside have ceased makes
cold trailing a necessary endeavor. And despite living in a world that is more and more technologically dependant, cold trailing is a very simple, and tedious, exercise. While aerial thermal imaging has been used to map the extent of the Weber Fire, it is the human touch that best identifies when a fire has finally been defeated. Nothing can compare to the precision of bare skin reaching into ash, sensing the degree of heat that remains on the ground. Of course, bare skin reaching toward ash can also spell disaster if crews are not properly trained, says John Henry, strike team leader, also out of Lassen National Park. Hands are often the victim of cold trailing. “The things they have to remember are to use their non-dominate hand and use the back of their hand,” Henry says, demonstrating the best way to test for heat. “If you burn the palm of your hand, your hand reacts this way,” Henry says, making a quick fist with his left hand. “If that happens, you have a club for the rest of your life. The backs of hands are easier to heal and graft if you get burnt.” And burns can happen. Both Doyle and Henry mention losing fingerprints on
their testing hands, the results of years of cold trailing on wildfires. They have both been fighting fires for more than 20 years. To outsiders the fire may have seemed all but finished Thursday, with very little smoke rising into the air and no visible flames on the side of Weber Canyon. But Henry says fire is not predictable and cold trailing is necessary to guarantee the fire won’t return. On Wednesday, a storm ripped through the canyon, whipping winds at speeds upwards of 60 mph and stirring ash across the face of the fire. As a result, Henry says, flames came dancing to life in areas crews thought were finished, highlighting the need for cold trailing efforts around the perimeter of the fire. “It looks done and people may think it is done,” says Henry, scanning the hillside for signs of smoke and flame. “But it’s not done until we say it’s done.” In the meantime, crews will continue putting skin to ash on the perimeter of the local blaze, pursuing the moment when they can say with certainty the Weber Fire is no more. Reach Kimberly Benedict at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SquAd LeAder Cliffton Fierro checks around the base of a burned out tree for hot spots Thursday at the Weber Fire.
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A mop up crew discovers a hot spot , digs it up and sprays water to extinguish the embers Thursday at the Weber Fire.