Celia’s Dirtbag Diary: A Firefighting Adventure Story in the South Carolina Marsh

The sound of a Mark III pump, vibrating through its suction hose in the water, resembles the low rumble of a bull American alligator, which is territorial and often aggressive towards other males.

The Mark III is the workhorse of wild-land firefighting, but you will not learn this in training, especially if you are from the west. So, I was surprised when, as soon as we fired up the pump, the large alligator basking on the opposite bank picked up its head and turned in our direction.

Alligators spend a lot of time basking and may seem slow and lumbering, but they can move quite quickly when they want to, especially in the water. The gator stared at us, then slipped into the water.

After three years in the west, I had come to South Carolina one early spring to do prescribed fire, which involves intentional low-intensity burning to maintain or reestablish natural fire-dependent forest-types that are common in the US west and southeast.

On this particular day, we were burning a barrier island in the intercoastal waterway. The island was criss-crossed by a series of old dikes that made fresh and saltwater impoundments and marshes. The upland areas were wildly overgrown maritime forest. Two from our crew stayed with the pump, which would allow them to wet down areas we didn’t want to burn. I went with a small, battered engine we’d use to run along the dikes and fire the edge, while a helicopter lit the interior.

That afternoon, we fired off a large section of marsh and adjacent forest. The helicopter lit the interior while two of us fired the edge along the dike with torches and flare guns. We moved our hand-me-down engine down the dike, spraying as we went to keep the fire off.

Dikes are made of organic matter; and if they catch fire, they can slowly burn for days, often without any obvious smoke—skunking—destroying the dike and potentially spreading the fire to adjacent forest, where it can spread uncontrolled. We didn’t want that, of course.

Cured marsh grass is light and flashy, though highly flammable. The main head of the flames from a marsh firing move quickly, about 50 feet per minute, and they can reach 30 feet high. Because we fired the edge ahead of the main front and because we had the engine to pump water, we could keep the dike from burning. It would be hot, but we could put out anything that caught. Just as the head of the flames approached, the pump broke.

Fire is a chemical reaction that requires three things: heat, oxygen and fuel. Remove any one of these things, and the combustion reaction stops. Water puts fires out because it removes oxygen and cools the fuel.

It is possible to put out a fire without water, but it is more difficult. We were getting it: the thick marsh smoke and flames were laying over the dike, and some small trees were torching. The other crewman grabbed a flapper. Flappers are firefighting at its least glorious. They are, essentially, truck mud flaps attached to the end of a shovel handle.

Beating at flames in grasses with a flapper smothers the fire, depriving it of oxygen. But it is a frustrating cross between whack-a-mole (the flames will keep popping back up as the still-hot fuel gets oxygen again) and something out of 1910. He whacked away in the choking smoke.

I grabbed a collapsable 5 gallon bucket—also circa 1910—and ran to the other side of the dike, where there was a section of open water in the marsh. The edge of the dike was steep and the water far below. I scrambled down, leaned in, filled the bucked, scrambled back up the dike and across to dump it on the flareups. Back and forth, I leaned out further over the ditch trying to get to deeper water. I leaned out further. The helicopter made a low pass, I reached out a little further with the bucket, the helicopter turned overhead, a small mat of grasses gave way under my foot and I fell into the marsh.

We stayed with the fire all night after it had died down, to make sure it was completely out and that the dike was not going to flare up later. Making sure a fire is completely out involves crawling on your hands and knees and feeling the dirt: You watch for steam and for smoke, and you dig your hand into the ground to feel for warmth. Soot particles range from 0.01 to 0.1 microns in size, much smaller than all but the finest clay soils. Soot completely permeates your skin pores.

Even after several showers and several days, tiny gray-black specks will be visible on your skin after a fire. We crawled and broke up the warm peaty soil in our hands.

We were rewarded the following morning with one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, on the island’s eastern beach. The sun rose red between the barkless gray limbs of trees, half-sunk in the sand, which were killed when Hurricane Hugo struck twenty years before. The sky was brilliant blue, without a cloud in sight. Without any rising smoke.

Celia works in land conservation and environmental policy in Massachusetts. Although she loves saving forests, farms, and wetlands, and crunching numbers about how much carbon dioxide they store (a lot--don't develop open space!), she has a lot of energy from a childhood spent running around outside. What keeps her in her seat and focused at work? Getting outdoors and playing hard!

Celia, a 2014 Action Wipes ambassador (aka an Actioneer!) loves all sports, and her current endeavor is competitive cycling, racing with Zimmer Capital p/b Foundation. A former collegiate rugby and field hockey player, Celia also spent four years as a wildland firefighter. She is drawn to physically demanding outdoor pursuits, and she is not afraid to get dirty! 

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