Forest Fires and How We Survived Them – Part 2

Chopper View of Sprinklers Running

Chopper View of Sprinklers Running

Imagine if you will, being outdoors and hearing a chugging sound in the distance and realizing that chugging is not a choo choo train coming. When you run down to the lake’s shoreline, four miles in the distance, you fix your gaze on a wall of intense undulating orange/red flames well above tree top level. Talk about getting instant dry mouth. By the end of the night, most of the surrounding countryside will be nothing but blackened, burned trees and ash; a heartbreaking sight! Let’s finish our series on forest fires and how we survived them.

We experienced a number of forest fires while living alone in the northern Saskatchewan wilderness. Two of them were major conflagrations. Between them, approximately ¾ of a million acres burned. Twice, fire got to within 90 feet of our homestead. Thankfully, Johanna had been evacuated when the big fire of 2002 rolled through.

Forest Fires are Unbelievable!

Forest fires can lob hot embers far in advance of themselves to start additional fires. They can even create their own weather systems. When a fire threatened, we implemented a plan that we formulated long before the start of fire season. Remember, we were 100 miles in the wilderness. Access was by float plane only so we couldn’t run to a car and drive away. We had two choices of escape. Both involved making a dash for the dock. The boat was our prime means of getting away, but with survival suits, we were prepared to bail into the lake if there was no time to get the boat running.

Survival Suits are Paramount

We purchased survival suits the first year we moved to the bush. We spent a good deal of time on the ice in winter fishing, walking or cross-country skiing. When fire threatened us in 2002, a couple of years after we built the house, we realized our survival suits would be handy in the summer as well as winter. Neither one of us are strong swimmers. Jumping in the lake to survive death by burning only to end up drowning didn’t make much sense. So placing our survival suits neatly by the downstairs door made it quick and easy for us to slip into them. Unfortunately we had to do that on more than one occasion. Keep in mind, survival suits might be useless if you are nowhere near water as part of an escape. They were vital for us.

During the big fire of 2002, I was home alone manning the water pumps when the flames arrived. The following excerpt is from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

“That afternoon, a fire crew landed to fuel the pumps and to double-check our setup. Before leaving, the pilot told me not to worry, the fire was far away. But the native fire crew, who had far more experience than the pilot, told me they sensed it was on its way. They wished me well and then departed.

A few hours later, the situation was starting to look bleak. Although it was only late afternoon, it was getting dark and ash was falling. I went down to the beach and heard a faint rumbling in the distance and saw the southern sky glowing orange. It was showtime, and no force on Earth was going to stop the approach of the inevitable firestorm. I came back to the house, wrote a quick note, and stashed it in our cook stove for safe keeping. If the house burned and I didn’t survive, someone, someday, would open the stove and hopefully find an intact piece of paper from me.”

I was surrounded by fire that night. As far as I was concerned, the entire world was on fire. So how did we manage to save our homestead?

Our Fire Suppression System

Sprinkler Protecting House

Sprinkler Protecting House

Sprinklers! Both our own system and those of the provincial fire crews. We set up a gas powered water pump on the beach each year. I had a 2.5 inch suction line attached to the pump via a quick coupler which went into the lake with an attached foot valve. I propped the foot valve up about 8 inches off the lake bottom with a concrete block so sand and debris wasn’t sucked into the pump. The foot valve was a very important component of the system. The foot valve insured that once water flowed into the system, the pump wouldn’t lose its prime because water couldn’t drain back into the lake.

Fire Pump Setup

Fire Pump Setup

The output of the water pump had an adapter and another quick coupler which attached to a standard 1.5 inch fire hose. Our pump supplied enough water pressure and volume to supply a large manifold mounted at the house. Standard fire hose comes in various lengths but 100 foot is typical. Several lengths of fire hose were connected together to make the run up to our house.

Manifold with Hoses

Manifold with Hoses

The purpose of this manifold was to take the high pressure water from the pump and redirect it to 5 sprinkler feed lines. I plumbed in a shut off valve on each feed line so we could control what sprinklers we wanted to have running. We used standard garden hose and sprinklers but if we had it to do over again, I think we would opt for more powerful sprinklers and ¾ inch fire hoses. Our manifold also let us run more standard fire hose out to our perimeter where we could tackle hot spots with a nozzle. The nozzle was adjustable from a wide spray to a pulverizing stream that could reach 100 feet.

1 of 2 sprinklers on house

1 of 2 sprinklers on house


The following is another book excerpt.

Part of my spring ritual is to head to the house roof and install two sprinklers, one at each end. I also have full-length trees cut, approximately 20- to 25-feet long, and have a sprinkler head attached to the top of each of those trees. We pick locations around our house site where we can stand these trees back up, like big flag poles, and either wire each one to another smaller tree or attach a set of tripod legs to the pole, so that it can be free-standing. The higher these “flag poles,” the more coverage and the better the protection.

When our property is being defended from a fire, the ground is crisscrossed with various hoses and water lines. The steady drone of the water pump, and the rhythmic “tick, tick, tick” of the sprinkler heads as they sweep through their circular pattern, offer reassurance, a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this will all end well. Water running off the roof, much like it does during a rain storm, reinforces the notion

Once a fire gets into the crown of the trees, it’s hard to stop. So how do sprinklers prevent property from being incinerated? The basic premise of sprinklers is to bring up the humidity in the protected area as high as possible, before a fire arrives. The dome of humidity has a tendency to bounce the fire around it, allowing the fire to bypass the protected areas. They most certainly will not extinguish a wildfire!”

Sprinkler Mounted on a Tall Pole

Sprinkler Mounted on a Tall Pole

For those in fire prone areas, take advantage of any available water source be it lake, stream, swimming pool or tap. It’s cheap insurance to have a pump and sprinklers set up well in advance of fire season. Make sure all combustible leaves, needles and debris are raked up from around any buildings. Try to cut off the lower branches of nearby trees so they don’t act as “ladder fuels”. Ladder fuels allow a ground fire to climb the tree and get into the crowns. Once that happens, it’s real trouble. Consider metal roofing and siding as a protective layer to your home.

Plan Your Escape

Above all, have a plan of escape. And then have backup plans. Never underestimate how fast a forest fire can erupt and travel. We’ve survived 2 direct hits from major forest fires. The area all around us burned but our little homestead with its oasis of green remained a testament that sprinklers do work.

Although it was a heartbreaking experience, fire is an inevitable, natural occurrence. It’s the cycle of life for a forest and plays an important role in its renewal. The burned areas became rife with blueberries and cranberries, which we took advantage of, and they became the perfect habitat for wildlife. The surrounding hillsides were green with 6- to 12-foot pine and spruce, plus even taller poplar and birch when we left the area.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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