Fire at French Creek State Park update

April 15, 2012

Natural Lands Trust sent a crew Friday to help with mop-up along the fireline. Preston Wilson, Mike Coll, Tim Burris, Kevin Mault, and I were on the Buzzard Trail which had been improved as a firebreak. Tom Kershner and Sean Quinn used a small pumper unit mounted on the Gwynedd UTV on another firebreak along the Mill Creek Trail where they didn’t have a hose lay available. Darin Groff was our Division Supervisor for those of us working from the top of Buzzard Hill near St. Peter’s Road all the way back to where the Raccoon Trail enters Hopewell Furnace—a couple miles. Jarrod Shull was a swamper with a sawyer crew that was working its way up from the bottom of the hill and we met them halfway (swamping is moving branches and rolling logs off the line for the chainsaw operators). Former NLTer Wayne Martin was a sawyer on that crew; he and Jarrod had been doing this all week. I was a Crew Boss doing mop-up with two Squads of eight people each; Preston was one of the Squad Bosses. Here’s Preston working among the many smoldering logs and stumps.

We followed a sawyer crew that was felling smoldering dead trees near the firebreak (there are many standing dead trees in this forest from repeated gypsy moth irruptions and natural mortality over the years). When they cleared an area we went in and put out anything hot on the ground. We went in a distance of three chains (a chain is 66 feet). Crews had run about 4,000 feet of hose along our line and we added lateral lines to wet down hotspots near the line. The water was being delivered to a portable pond on St. Peter’s Road at near top of the hill, then it was being pumped to a portable pump on a truck at the highest elevation of the trail, then down to us where we needed it. We didn’t have anything spot over the line all day.

This is the Buzzard Trail where it has descended off of the top of Buzzard Hill. The top picture was taken at the trail junction that has always had that trash barrel that is a sort of strange landmark.

We didn’t finish the whole length of our assignment, but we made it most of the way. Subsequent crews, overnight or the next day, will continue the process.

When we climbed back up the hill at the end of the day we were met by the neighbors on St. Peter’s Road who set up a tent and were offering a buffet dinner and beverages to the firefighters. That was just wonderful.

It was a long and arduous day. Mop-up is not as exciting as pursuing an active fire, but every bit as necessary. Natural Lands Trust sent staff not just because the length of the fire operations were exhausting forestry crews but because we would gain valuable experience. We do prescribed fires on our preserves (but not under these weather and fuel conditions!) that are shorter and simpler events. We’ve all taken classes on how wildfire operations are managed, but there’s no substitute for observing and participating in one. As a neighbor to this fire myself I am grateful to all of the folks who put in their time and hard work to contain the fire. The closest this fire came to Crow’s Nest Preserve is on the Buzzard Trail itself—which you know if you’ve ever bushwhacked up to it from the northern tip of Crow’s Nest—is not all that far; I estimate about 700 yards or 4/10 of a mile.

Officially this fire is called the Hopewell Fire (some of it is on Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site) and Friday’s work was “Operational Period 8.” Each 12 hour shift is given a consecutive number. It is very unusual for a fire in Pennsylvania to extend into this many operational periods; usually they are smaller and are out sooner. But weather conditions are still extremely dry; this fire won’t be out until we get significant rain and there remains a great risk for other fires. I think the most recent estimate is that this fire burned 741 acres, an area larger than Crow’s Nest Preserve and almost the size of 10% of French Creek State Park.

Yesterday Chester County declared a 30-day burn ban for all outdoor fires including in barrels with or without screens. Light rain will not penetrate the ash to smoldering duff below so while we’re happy to see anything that raises the relative humidity, a good soaking rain is what we need. This part of French Creek State Park is not likely to be open to the public for a while after the fire is declared out due to the continued risk of damaged trees falling.

Posted by Daniel Barringer on April 15, 2012.