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This article is an excerpt from the 1920's textbook, A Year in the Wonderland of Trees, by Hallan Hawksworth and Francis B. Atkinson.  Written from a biological perspective, the book aims at educating kids on the importance of trees and the environment.


Fire Prevention for Kids

The Dreadful Fireworks and the Declaration of Independence

You know how careless young people are with outdoor fires sometimes. Well, now, I want you to know how much more careless grown people are; and in so many more ways, what with their burning off of grass, and the camp-fires of hunters and fishers, and the tens of thousands of automobilists with their camp-fires and their cigars and cigarettes and burning matches, scattered through the woods this time of year from Maine to California.

The old way of celebrating the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence by blowing off fingers and putting out eyes and setting things afire with firecrackers, has gone out of fashion pretty much, but beginning in July, and even earlier, and lasting on until school takes up in September, we still have far more dreadful fireworks; fireworks that, if put side by side, would make 33,000 miles of flaming woods -- an unbroken wall of fire, long enough to reach four times around the earth and then have enough left over for another forest fire reaching from Chicago to New York!

And, as if we had really set out to see how soon we could not only burn ourselves out of our houses and our homes, but burn up all the possible timber for building again, we start a winter house-burning campaign and get it into full swing about the time most of the forest-burning is over and the forest-lands are covered with snow. Independent of the fires in the forest regions a home burns somewhere in this broad land of ours every three minutes, on the average, throughout the year; and largely from causes which might be prevented -- defective chimneys, unprotected floors near furnace-pipes, the careless use of matches.

In connection with the fires in cities goes a heavy death-toll averaging 15,000 a year. The majority of the victims in these cases are the brave soldiers, the firemen, who make it their business, among other things, to risk their own lives to save the lives of others.

Who set the Woods afire?

The burning of brush to clear land for the plough is a common source of forest fires. In the South it is the custom to burn over the dead grass in the woods every spring in order to improve the grazing for cattle and hogs. In the West this is frequently done on land used for pasturing sheep. Through carelessness in the management of such fires, particularly when there comes a sudden rise in the wind, they get beyond control. Massachusetts, Idaho, and many other States now have closed seasons during which it is unlawful to start such fires without a permit. Before a permit can be obtained the applicant must give a good reason for starting a fire at this time and give satisfactory assurance that proper precautions will be taken for controlling it.

In forest regions of large extent, such as those in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Adirondacks, the Rockies, and the mountains of the Pacific coast, carelessness with camp-fires or with matches, cigars, or cigarettes, may set a blaze going that will burn over hundreds of acres before it can be stopped. Between 1916 and 1922 forest fires burned over 10,000,000 acres every year. In 1923 this rose to 26,000,000, and in 1924 to over 28,000,000.

But why No Exclamation Points?

You notice I didn't put any exclamation-points after those figures, although I am so liberal with exclamation-points as a rule.

"The reason is, Mr. Firebrand (we'll suppose we're talking to one of the careless or ignorant people who are always starting these fires), "the reason is that if the figures themselves don't make you do your own exclaiming, you're too dull to be reading this book, anyhow!"

"But our wonderful fire-fighters that we hear so much about, the fire-fighters of the national, State, and other forest services, public and private, what are they doing," you may ask, "that these fires are so terrible and keep on growing?"

They're fighting fires better than they ever have and are acknowledged to be the most skilful fire-fighters in the world. Of 6,000 fires, they stop 3,000, on the average, before they have burned over more than a quarter of an acre, but these firebrand people keep starting new ones faster than the forest firemen can put them out. That's why!

"You do this, Mr. Firebrand, by the camp-fires and the embers and the burning matches and cigars and cigarettes you leave behind when you're automobiling, fishing, hunting, picnicking. Having such good times in the beautiful summer woods!

"Light your cigar or your cigarette with that and then think a minute. It will help you think again the next time you do the same thing in the woods. Do you wonder that some States have already passed laws making it a punishable offense to throw lighted matches or cigars or cigarettes on the ground in wooded regions whether a fire results or not? Isn't it rather a wonder that all States haven't passed such laws?"

"The main reason for the great increase of fires in the woods," says the American Forests and Forest Life Magazine in a recent issue, "is the greater use of our forests and outdoor lands by the people. With the automobile taking more and more fire-ignorant people into the country in search of forests in which to hunt, fish, hike, or rest, forest fires are on the increase. Of the 92,000 fires last year, 92 per cent were started by human agencies."

Often a camp-fire is built against a log where it may smolder for weeks and then, fanned by a breeze, flame up and start a big fire. And any camp-fire left, in which there is a single spark, is a source of similar danger. It's a part of the perversity of things that fire never seems to take quite so much delight in its business as in places where it is not wanted. Fires are almost as "pernickety" as people that way!

Bad "Housekeeping" and Bad Fires:

Workers in lumber-camps have often set their own and other woods afire by their careless and thriftless ways. They leave the ground covered with the lopped-off branches of their saw logs, kill young trees by breaking them or tearing off their bark in felling large trees which strike them in falling; and all this dead wood is ready kindling for the first well-placed spark from their logging-engines or the sparks from a locomotive on a near-by railroad or lightning striking a dead tree or a stump. While no way has yet been found to muzzle the lightning, it has been found that it does a great deal of damage in regions where there are dead trees and where brush and logging-rubbish are allowed to accumulate. Bad housekeeping in the woods is just like bad housekeeping in the basement or the attic, a constant invitation to that well-known bad citizen the "Fire-fiend" to "start something."

The Six-Legged Fire Bugs:

Insects are not only among the worst enemies of trees but, strange as it sounds, help start forest fires. Not that they are careless with matches or anything of that kind, but the dead wood of the trees they attack is much more easily set on fire by a lightning-stroke than is the wood of a perfectly healthy and sound tree. Trees around the home can be closely watched so that they will not get into this condition, but this is difficult in the great national forests while we have so few men to do the work. So the foresters, among their other numerous duties, cut down trees that are badly attacked, sell them, when fit for lumber, and see that the bark containing insect broods is burned.

When the "Fire-Fiend" Travels "Incog"


I don't know whether you ever read, in The Strange Adventures of a Pebble, about how earthquakes sometimes travel "incog."; i.e., unknown until they bob up somewhere and begin to do damage. But, anyhow, the "Fire-fiend" that haunts the woods has a trick that reminds me of that odd habit. I refer to the fires, too well known to foresters but not so well known to others, that creep slowly and unseen through half-rotten leaves.

If you don't know the nature of these hidden fires you may unconsciously start one, even when you have been careful, as you think, to put out every spark of the fire you built to fry your fish in summer or warm yourselves on a winter hike. You may have cleared away all the brush and dead grass and built your fire on a spot covered with a mass of rotten leaves; but your fire will dry these leaves, to some extent, and below the surface they may take fire. Then this fire will creep along under the blanket of the top layer and, a good while afterward and a good way off, work itself to the surface and be blown into a blaze by the wind. Fires so started in the autumn have been known to burn slowly for months and then break out in midwinter.

Then let there come a Stiff Breeze and. . . !

All fires running along on top or underneath the surface of the ground are known, in the language of forestry, as "ground fires." When fanned by high winds, especially if there is much brush, "slash" (branches lopped off in lumbering operations), dead trees, or a thick growth of young Pines, and a ground fire may quickly become a "crown" fire; i.e., a fire that spreads through the tops of the trees. Most of the cone-bearers have a great deal of resin in them, especially in the bark and leaves, and a ground fire, coming to the foot of one of these trees, runs right up the bark, then out on the limbs and branches to the leaves, and so spreads from tree-top to tree-top faster than it is spreading along the ground.

Fires, as every Boy Scout demonstrates every time he starts one of those little wigwam-chimney things for the troop camp, rapidly create a draft of their own. A forest fire, even without the help of any wind, advances very rapidly, and with a strong wind will travel from six to ten miles an hour; and brands, carried at a still more rapid rate, drop away ahead and start new fires.

Such a fire it is practically impossible to stop. But one of the remarkable things the fire-fighters of the forest have learned is how to make such fires stop themselves, as we shall see in Section II.

On the Firing-Line with the Fighters:


Imagine yourself in a big woods, on a quiet, lazy, summer day, gazing, half-asleep, at the distant hills, fading into the blue haze. Then you see another kind of haze come stealing through the trees, the gray smoke that runs ahead of the billowing black clouds and flames of a forest fire.

Another Paul Revere and the Minutemen:

Another pair of eyes saw the smoke of that fire before you did, the eyes of the watcher in one of the lookout stations located on high points or in specially built towers throughout the forested regions, and it was immediately reported by telephone to the office of the nearest fire-ranger. Off he dashes in his machine, stopping for a moment at the scattered homes along the way, rousing the farmers, like a modern Paul Revere. He takes as many people as he can in his own machine, leaving the others to follow in theirs or on horseback. When all reach the scene of the fire, there are, say, twelve men; enough for two crews. Slowly they struggle up the mountainside through the thick brush, until they are slightly above the fire. There they divide into two crews, one in charge of the ranger, the other in that of some other experienced man.

The men work fast, yet with deliberation, cutting away the brush ahead of the fire and raking a path clean of leaves; for they have brought with them the forest-fire fighters' tools -- rakes, mattocks, hatchets, and spades.

Next, as an emergency measure, if the fire cannot be checked in any other way, they start a fire themselves -- what is known as a "back-fire." They set it going between the cleared space and the big fire and let it burn up to the cleared space, where it not only stops of its own accord, don't you see, but the clearing and the burned strip together make a path so wide that the big fire can't jump over it. So it is obliged to die for want of anything more to feed on. That's what I meant when I said that when a fire is too big to be put out in any other way, the foresters make it "put itself out." But "back-firing" is dangerous business and should never be attempted by a novice.

If you've ever bucked the line in a football-match you have some notion of what this forest-fire game is like. Its a hard struggle that takes all the pluck and staying powers you have in you. That's why the men work deliberately, as I said. When you're fighting a forest fire you must not, in the excitement, overdo yourself and get winded. You must "keep cool"--figuratively speaking!

At times the low-lying smoke and flame is whirled up in a burning, blinding gust, but, with faces blackened and hair and eyebrows singed, the men fight on. Sometimes a man, hurrying to get out of danger and blinded by the smoke, runs into a tree and staggers back stunned and bleeding, but soon he recovers himself and is hard at it again.

Among other tough jobs in these battles with the fires is the frequent necessity of chopping off big, tough roots which have to be cut away so that they won't get on fire, and, burning slowly, underneath the soil, and working along, like those smoldering leaves, start new fires. And piles of rock have to be pulled apart to see that they hide no sparks.

"On the Jump!  She's over the Line!"

At times such a fire, in the last stage of the fight, will die down so that it looks as if a few well-directed blows with brush or a burlap bag would put it out. Then along comes a breeze and the sapling Oaks with their dry leaves still clinging to them -- you remember what we learned about this habit of theirs in the November chapter -- and the young Pines with their needles full of resin, burst into flames and the flames pass on to the larger trees. But the men, never losing their nerve, resume the fight, cutting, raking, giving way step by step, when necessary, here and there, but doggedly fighting still. If the fire spreads rapidly it may be necessary for them to take their positions far apart, and this gives the fire a chance to slip through.

"Hey, Bill! Back here! On the jump! She's over the line!"

And back Bill goes, but not "on the jump," for it's quite a distance off and up-hill all the way. But Bill and his companion finally "stop her," and Bill slides and stumbles down the rocky slope to his former position. Finally the victory is won and the men throw themselves on the ground to rest until the coming of the night patrol; for, just as it is after a big fire in a city, men are left on guard for some time to see that it isn't "playing possum."

The Greatest of all Revolutionary Wars:

In such ways, day after day in different parts of the country, these men are fighting in the hard struggle for a new Declaration of Independence; independence of the fires that are working such havoc in our remaining woods in spite of all the great and growing work that is being done in that direction; and if this struggle is finally won, as it will be only if others do their part, it will mark the success of the greatest Revolutionary War in history.

And in the long summer vacation time, when so many happy groups gather around their camp-fires, we won't forget the picture of thousands of smoke-blinded men, fighting through long days and sleepless nights; and, in the farther West, of settlers' families, after years of labor, viewing the ruins of their little homes, all because a lot of vacationers have ended "a perfect day" by setting the woods afire.

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