PITCAIRN — The blazing tree after a lightning strike that started a forest fire would have looked like a big torch from the distance if it could have been seen above the tree line, according to Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger William Benzel.
The Harrisville firefighter who was the first to see it, however, saw only smoke coming from the top of a hill from about a mile away while driving on State Route 3, said Harrisville Fire Chief David Thomas.
Despite the fire being about 1,500 feet off Edwards Road and up a steep incline on top of a rocky ledge, the Harrisville team was able to locate the blaze and battle to control it with help from the Edwards, Fine and Star Lake fire departments.
“The tree was still standing but dead, hollow, and the fire came up right through the middle of it,” Mr. Benzel said, explaining that the way the tree burned indicated a lightning strike.
With darkness pending and not enough time to thread a fire hose through the trees and up the hill that bends at a 45-degree angle for much of its 300- to 400-foot height, the firefighters used their tools and five-gallon water spray backpacks to chop down the tree and subdue all of the surface blazes burning “fuel,” leaves, twigs and ground cover.
Ultimately, about a two-acre patch of “rugged land” was scorched.
“We let it burn until about 10 p.m.,” Chief Thomas said. “But then it got too dangerous to stay up there. The DEC came in the morning and spent all day Tuesday there, but when we left it was pretty much contained.”
Mr. Benzel, who is based at the DEC’s Cranberry Lake substation, said when they arrived in the morning, the fire had “gone into the ground” burning the organic top layer of “duff” that showed in the form of steam coming from “hot areas.”
The rangers doused the area from a 2,000 gallon roadside portable tank filled by the Harrisville Fire Department, as there were no streams nearby that were large enough to supply water directly.
“The firefighters were really what saved the day,” Mr. Benzel said. “Seventy-five percent of the fire was out the first night.”
“What was unique about this fire was its location on top of the exposed, rocky area with a lot of crags. It wasn’t a really dramatic scene, just a lot of small fires, but the deeper soil areas, mostly in the center, the duff burns down from eight inches to a foot and a half until it hits mineral soil and can’t burn any more,” Mr. Benzel said.
The DEC will be returning today to feel the area for “hot spots” and soak it down one more time.
“It’s a stubborn type of fire to put out and very labor intensive,” he said.
Rangers Martin Candee and Brandon Poulton, of the DEC’s Lowville substation, were on top of the rock, soaking areas still showing signs of smoke. By the afternoon, however, with the help of some continuous rain, Mr. Benzel said there didn’t seem to be any more hot spots but the team would return this morning to give the area one more soaking for safety.