The Willard Fire: Falling Hazard Trees

Well, after two days of travel combined with three days on the line, our second “roll” is terminado. No mas. We are home and the Willard Fire is one dead dog. The standard 14 days at 16 hours a day with hazard pay now seems like a dream, something nearly unfathomable, as our layoff date creeps one step closer with every falling leaf and dropping needle. The nights get crisper and we start to layer; wool shirts have returned from Spring. Where people’s minds lurk is reflected in the giant heaps of firewood, uniquely stacked among various permanent employees’ houses. Whoring ourselves out to get a full 14-day assignment – to chase the dragon to Wyoming or back to the Soberanes – has been tried and has failed us. No FMO, Forest Supervisor, or long-forgotten jumper buddy can save us now – back to the district game of roads, trails, tools, burning, and calling it a season.

The Willard Fire was managed by Cal Fire, and they threw 17 or 18 hundred people at it quick. 2500 acres. From the get go, our future there wasn’t promising. But, on a positive note, I was tasked with falling hazard trees for our division, all three days, while my comrades mopped up and generally annoyed the hell out of one another. Firefighter 1 trainee says to fellow Firefighter 1 Trainee: “how do you want to do this” and the other guy says “no, how do you want to do this”, and I was a half mile away yelling “backcut” all day or eating another pound from the four pound sack lunch. It was one of those few times when running saw affords you a peaceful existence in sharp contrast to the developing trainees’ struggling ego’s and disparate competencies.

I learned a lot in a brief amount of time, though, and expanded my knowledge on falling different species of hazard trees. On the Soberanes Fire, earlier in the season, it was mostly Oak we were contending with, but up north on the Willard Fire, Cedar and Ponderosas were the nature of the beast. In three days, I probably fell 40-60 trees, but vividly recall five or six for specific reasons:

The boring Back Cut: The tree was a hollowed front, leaning uphill cedar, about 60 feet tall with a 40’’ DBH. The privilege of cutting it was given to a permanent, instead of myself, for practice and fun. And as a favor, a looking-out-for-ya gesture. It pissed me off, being lead saw and busting my ass all of the time. Yes, the tree was in certain regards beyond my experience. However I can make a boring backcut and understand why we make a double face cut on a cat-face a double face. I may have needed some talking through. I handed away my sharp saw and watched in reproach. As he studied the tree’s lean and intricate details, I watched my sharp Stihl 461 lay in the dirt, unsheathed, resting teeth among jagged rocks. A horrible sight to any sawyer. But looking back on this ordeal, there were positives to him taking the tree. I’m glad he took it so I could study his movements and decide where they could be better, where they worked, and why.

The Double Face on a Cat-Face: We flagged an uphill leaning cedar that hung across the road leaving the line, only to return the next day to fall it. It had a cat-face consuming over half the tree, stood 50-70 ft tall, and was approximately 32’’ DBH. Our division met up with us at the stump, to tell us how awful some of the cuts were he’d seen so far, how C cutters were leaving behind some hideous evidence of their poor executions. I’m a B, always wanting to cut C trees to get to that level, to get certified, and progress. “Do you feel comfortable with it and do you want it?” I felt comfortable. I knew it would need a double face. I can do that. There wasn’t enough meat left to warrant a boring backcut. That, as well as the un-overly dominant lean didn’t make me think a boring backcut was needed. I put in my humboldts, started the cut on the offside and went for it. The tree fell wonderfully, but did twist a bit on the outer layer of bark while hinging. In my opinion, this was due to a difference in depth on my face cuts, cutting more holding wood on one side, and cutting cat-faced cedars in general. Touching and playing with the bark tells me they are stringy, capable of shifting internally without clean breaks.

The historic Burnt Snag: There is this thing we forestry people call sport falling, which is taking down a tree that isn’t justified, doesn’t need to be felled. When falling hazard trees so crews can go in and mop up, whether it’s our crew, or someone else’s, it’s our call to determine which trees could potentially pose unnecessary risk to human life. It’s a huge responsibility. Did I miss a killer? Does this tree really need to come down? There is some wiggle room, and I’d rather error on the side of caution, both for the welfare of people and trees. On our last day, I cam across a big boy at the top of a knob. It was a dead, rotting Ponderosa Pine with huge widow-maker limbs gaping out 15 or 20 feet, ready for their silent descent. Staring roughly 80 feet into clear Northern California blue sky, I contemplated it’s existence. It had a 30’’ inch DBH, thick bark cover, with a questionable down/sidehill lean. Upon examination, I noticed the base of the tree had been victim to substantial heat and was consumed 4-6 inches around the entire base where dirt meets bole. I called for my sqaudee, a C feller, and was given the green light. Before moving forward, I had others clear the area of inmate crews and anyone else in the area. While putting in the humboldt, I watched overhead for the limbs, kinda cursing at the tree in a way, like “don’t you fucking think about it, you nasty old tree”. With a solid face in, I killed the saw and informed the forest of this trees demise: “Backcut, side hill”. It came creaking over with a loud boom, ash dusting about and a strong silence following.

mg_1215The stump practice: As we are near the end of the season, my primary swamper has returned to school, leaving me with a short, funny kid with no saw experience. But, a willingness to learn. So at the end of our last day, when we found ourselves in the grid of a Firefighter 1 Trainee, basically standing in place for a quarter hour at a time, I saw a stump and grabbed my swamper. I had him take the saw and put in a couple face cuts on a 12’’ inch stump. He was clumsy, couldn’t line up his cuts very well, and had trouble supporting the weight of the 461. But he was happy, and eager to learn, and seven or eight other interested grinders watched and listened as I directed him and offered tips and tricks. I didn’t expect this little stump exercise to mean much – it was just how I was taught to get better. You see a stump, you put a face cut in. Every single one. Period. Looking back on those three days, I saw lots of trees falling down, and a stump with two mediocre face cuts. And I think to myself how seeing a perfect stumpshot and fall on a complex tree feels less fulfilling than coaching a kid thru his ignorance on a skill. Teaching, imparting: it was a great day.


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