Palabras Pintorescas - Fire season is around the corner

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By Editha Bartley

Once in a while (not often anymore) an old time truck will backfire as it meanders down our road here in the mountains. The  modern vehicle engine obviously is more efficient.

Another backfire definition has to do with actual fires. Backfires are used to stop both prairie and forest fires, and that practice has been around at least 150 years or more.

A controlled burn ahead of a forest fire will devour the necessary fuels the big fire needs. This does not work in all cases, thanks to wind velocities and variables that are impossible to forecast. Prairie fires were a constant threat when our forefathers braved  the elements and came west in covered wagon trails.

Our armies that marched into this area also caused fires and then learned to use backfires to save their camps. And the early Indian tribes used fires to help in their hunting expeditions.

Lightning has always been a big cause of fires, and is still a major cause of our forest fires. The fires of long ago shaped our landscape, and actually helped control unwanted plants and forest crowding. And we have done such a good job of preventing forest fires that our forests are now badly overgrown.

Thinning is essential now. We learned this in 1968 when a man-caused forest fire burned several hundred acres here.

This poorly thinned forest created a so-hot fire that the topsoil was turned to ash, and the burned area today is still a scar in many areas. Topsoil is almost impossible to regenerate after a fire.

Good old coal-fired train engines were another big cause of fires along railroad tracks. The track rights-of-way are wide, and are never grazed or cut, so when a spark from an engine lands in that dry grass, a fire is imminent.

Our Valmora home was right next to the main line of the Santa Fe railroad, and we had fires almost every year there. My grandfather planted oats in a field between our hospital complex and the railroad tracks, the manure from our dairy cow herd was piled up in this field, then scattered at planting time.

So, when fire started along the tracks, you knew sparks would set the manure pile on fire, too. Now that was a real problem because manure piles can smolder for weeks.

The smoke this fire caused was very bad for the Valmora patients who had diseased lungs. The fires usually just burned themselves out. Barrels of water were hauled on wagons and dumped on the small inferno did little good, it seemed.
When I was a kid I always had a Levi jacket either tied to my saddle or on my back. As luck would have it, I was near more than one fire started by the tracks. Although the fire-fighting tool of that time was wet gunny sacks, which one can beat out a grass fire with, I learned my jacket would work almost as well, and I was able to hold on to my dear Comanche’s (Kayo for short) reins with one hand and beat out the fire with the other.

He didn’t like the situation any more than I did, but he never did take off and leave me, either. Just one of the many escapes Kayo and I had when I was a teenager!

Fire season is just around the corner. May the snows and rains come soon to sooner. Thank heavens for our local, well-trained fire departments. I’m afraid they will soon be busy, busy.

Editha Bartley lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.