Fire is Tenacious

April 17, 2021

Yesterday, I burned my fingers. Not badly, but it was when I learned the ground can be hot after a forest fire.

Don’t play with fire, mother said. This, though, was unintentional.

Ixchel Tucker and I had headed up to the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, where the temperature right now is noticeably less oppressive than in the lower area where we both live. We aimed to walk a little and check out the route we can never quite find that leads back over the mountains to a village on ‘our’ side of part of the range of cerros. To finish up, before the sun began to slide behind the trees, we checked out a path she’d been on before, trying to identify if it was close to the route that interested us.

We had barely gone 300 yards when we realised we were in an area that had recently been hit by the hillside fires. The ground was not uniformly black, nor were all the trees scorched, but there was a discernible smell of woodsmoke still in the air. 

The edge of Mordor? The foreground soil was black and charred, yet a hundred yards away, the trees were untouched.

Looking about, I found a small wisp of smoke still rising from the earth beside the trail. I tried kicking soil over the hot-spot with my shoe, but the smoke kept rising. So, I bent down to scoop the soil better with my fingers.

I didn’t know that earth itself, which has a lot of organic matter in it, can keep burning without a visible flame. However, one ‘Ouch’ later, I found out. Fire in a forest isn’t just a surface phenomenon, but one that gets down into the ground. Ixchel had a story of finding that a small fire at a place here where she’d lived had followed the line of a root towards its parent tree, and having to act fast to prevent the tree igniting. (She worked once in the insurance business, and is a mine of knowledge about the ways fire can do damage).

Further away, but down a slippery slope, there was a stronger veil of smoke rising. We assumed the local firefighters, who have lengthy collective experience, were letting this burn out, and had not just overlooked it. But the experience did bring home how and why fires are so hard to put out on verdant mountainsides. 

Three inches or more of fine grey wood-ash, along with a few charred stumps of small trees.

Simply eliminating the flames is a first step, but the ground stays hot and, in some cases, remains in combustion. There’s an element of whack-a-mole to firefighting in such places, along with the complications arising from weather conditions. A steady rain-shower a few nights ago helped extinguish the big fires we had in the hills, but that was after a couple of days of intensive firefighting led by trained teams, and heavily supported by water-dumping helicopters. And still, as my slightly singed fingertips told me, there was the potential for a new flare-up.

Our temperatures remain high, predicted to average 30 deg C through the coming week. Even at night, they only go down to about 15 degrees. That makes the mornings very fresh and pleasant, but the afternoons oppressive. And it does little to suppress emerging or continuing fires.

We aren’t simply fire-gawkers, and we weren’t looking to get close to the areas the fires had touched. We both appreciate that a live fire can spread fast, especially if an evening wind springs up. But for the next few weeks, we need to be watchful if we go hiking on the hillsides, to be sure that not only do we avoid the live fires, but also look out for the residue of fires supposedly quenched.

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