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,
"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
"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
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,
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.