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.