The forester's words when a fire call wakes him at midnight are unprintable, but there is a vocabulary that accurately describes what we do to prevent or fight fire. If it sounds pedantic, it is. Here is some of it.
By Gilbert Plant email@example.com
FIRE BELT: A strip of a practical width up to about three meters, cleared of combustible material by various means to enable controlled burning, or to arrest very small flames, normally around compartments. Grading or sweeping every road in autumn removes leaves and sticks, creating fire belts within the plantations, as well as improving access.
FIRE BREAK: A wide area free of combustible material intended to break the progress of a large fire. Examples are grasslands, paddocks, perennial indigenous forest, and cliffs, amongst others. Its width defines it. If man-made, it is ideally angled at 45% to the prevailing wind, where the topography allows.
FUEL VOLUME: is lots of stuff that burns readily. The floor of a wattle plantation, with its mat of fine leaf-drop, is very different from the well-aerated forest litter of a eucalyptus stand. Wattle planted adjacent to grasslands helps to create a fire barrier.
FUEL DENSITY: relates to heavier stuff that ignites less readily, but burns long and hot once it does.
A TRACER (with an 'r' on the end) is a bullet treated with chemicals to make it glow in flight, so you can see where the machine gun is pointing!
A TRACE is the narrow path normally created by chemical means from which strip-burns in grasslands can be controlled. The word comes from the Latin 'tractus', old French 'trace' (pronounced 'truss'), middle English 'trace', all meaning a 'path'. It is the easiest of all the fire protection tasks.
Using chemical desiccants to create a 'trace', followed by burning when the rest of the grass is too green to ignite, is an efficient, economical, low-stress fire protection technique when carried out at the right time. If the area frosts, be careful not to start too early: the re-grown grass will be dry enough to burn, even though it may still look green.
Different people hold different fire phobias, but since fire is inevitable in the forestry industry, we learn to live with them. My own phobia is being unprepared: The temperature is in the 30s, the wind nudging the 70s, relative humidity about zero, and the fire call comes through. Nothing beats the feeling of utter helplessness and mind-numbing dread that floods through your body on finding empty fire tenders, tangled fire hoses, missing nozzles, broken knapsacks, jammed lances, empty fuel tanks, inaccessible bakkie sakkies, broken or missing beaters and rakes, vehicles that don't start, broken starter ropes. And the hammer-blow...the proto team has dispersed to who knows where!
If enough of these factors combine at once, the mind simply disconnects, spinning out of gear. The nervous tick you develop in those few minutes will still be with you years later, as the air conditioner in the office of your new job whispers quietly away.
The golden rule is early preparation and servicing, attention to detail, and regular inspection.
Some firefighting equipment tips:
- Fit a full-flow ball cock (delicate plumbing term!) to hose nozzles. A fire-fighting hose made of anything other than rubber is an abomination. Synthetic hoses simply melt on contact with flame or coals and should be banned. The suction hose will not function if it sucks air. Even a pin-sized hole renders it inoperable.
- Cut the top off a two-liter plastic bottle; attach it by a rope to the inside of the lid of the bakkie sakkie for priming the pump.
- In the bakkie, have some rope, a tub of light grease for the knapsack lance, a whole packet of matches in the cubby hole, and at least screwdrivers, water pump pliers, a hammer and a shifting spanner. A complete starter rope assembly is expensive but is a lot quicker to fit than wrestling with a faulty starter spring.
- Train everyone to return the kill-switch to the "start" position after cutting the pump motor. Even better, fit a spring-loaded switch.
- Close the fuel tap when parking the bakkie-sakkie. If the needle and seat in the carburetor bowl leaks, the petrol dribbles into the sump and dilutes the oil. I've seen it fill the cylinder, thus locking the motor.
- If it takes longer than two minutes for one man to load this vital item (bakkie-sakkie), it's taking too long. Store it supported on thick, strong planks or, ideally, a sturdy table that pivots, attached to a chain-block kept under light load so that the weight is on the support. To load it, lift it a few centimeters, move the support away, reverse your bakkie under the tank, lower the bakkie-sakkie, disconnect the chain, strap the tank, and drive off. Refill it before returning it!
Fire is the greatest stress producer in our industry. Preventing and combatting its destructive potential is not rocket science, and can be done on a limited budget. Climate change has begun to affect us, as weather patterns become unpredictable, sometimes extreme, escalating the risks. The old adage that 'knowledge is power' applies more than ever. But we are tree farmers after all, and "die boer maak a plan."
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, April 2017 Source