September 5th was a beautiful and relatively leisurely Wednesday on the farm. Zach had just set out to mow down a patch of pernicious thistle in the pasture, when about ten minutes in he saw smoke rising from the mower’s engine. He immediately shut it down and doused the small flame with the water in his water bottle. It put the flame on the engine out, but the heat buildup was already too much, and a wad of dry grass ignited and spread to the ground.
I was down in a lower part of the pasture battling thistle in our chestnut grove when I heard a dull explosion and looked up to discover a plume of dark, dirty looking smoke. I sprinted uphill, and as the scene came into view, Zach raced past me toward the pond with a 5-gallon bucket in hand. “The mower!” he yelled. No further explanation was needed. Zach seemed to have a task in mind, so I rushed toward the smoke and flames to assess and decide where to put my priorities.
The fire was close to our main well, along with our brand new set of twin 3000-gallon water storage tanks, so that was where I started. Of course the first thing I went to was the spigot at the well, but mysteriously, and frustratingly, nothing came out. The hose left abandoned on the ground should have tipped me off that Zach had already tried this and come to the same conclusion. I visualised all the fire extinguishers we’d strategically positioned around the farm previously, and where they were. I ran to the barn, gathered as many as I could, and then hurried back to the water tanks to stave off the flames. Zach, along with a Good Samaritan who had stopped on the road to help, was fighting the line down by the pond to keep the fire from the forest edge that borders our neighbor’s property.
Once the tanks were safe, I ran back to the barn and ratcheted up the pressure on the pump computer and removed pressure reducers and filters from the stand pipes to get the water flowing as fast and hard as possible. I then dragged out as many long as hoses as I could find. A few more folks showed up and asked what they could do to help. I handed them buckets or hoses and we worked together to try and stop the encroaching fire from reaching our garden fences. When the fire department arrived, they observed the situation for a minute or so and then positioned their trucks strategically to protect our buildings while at the same time controlling the burn.
All told, it was about 45 minutes or so that we, along with our firefighters and other helpful community members, fought the fire, and together we were able to save all of our infrastructure, such as our well, water tanks, and fence lines, as well as the woodland that borders our property. Our animals and buildings were of course top of our minds, too, but fortunately the fire didn’t get anywhere near them. When it was over, I met up with Zach and the guy he had been working with down by the pond. We hugged, laughed, and fell over with relief and exhaustion. The paramedics checked to make sure we were OK and didn’t need a trip the ER, and gave a few helpful hints for our lungs.
The whole ordeal was quite the scare. We lost an expensive mower, but the important thing is that everybody came out safe and we are excited to see what happens in our pasture from here on. Fire is a natural part of pasture/savannah ecosystems and keeps them healthy by removing pests, diseases, and increasing vigor in plants. Burns activate soil microbes and release nitrogen in the soil, which will increase forage and plant growth. We expect lush new growth, and hopefully some new species of plants to show up and thrive.
We want to share our utmost gratitude to the person who stopped early on and called 911, everybody else who stopped to help without hesitation, the San Juan County Fire Department including the volunteer firefighters, and the ambulance dispatch who checked to make sure that we didn’t need to go to the emergency room for carbon monoxide poisoning or any other reason. We also want to thank all of our friends, family, and neighbors who called, emailed, and texted with their love and concern.
Looking back, we’re also grateful for the measures that we had previously taken for fire prevention and safety. We had stocked and refilled fire extinguishers, kept the grass well mown, and had a stock of extra hoses and buckets around. Now we’re looking to see what we can do to be even better prepared in the future, like keeping the fence lines trimmed, installing a gravel skirt around buildings and other infrastructure, and implementing other tips from the fire department. We’re also excited to share this important information with other island farmers. Stay tuned for more information. For more information about the fire, check out these local media links.