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Awhile back I heard on CBC radio about a man who got trapped in a forest fire (surrounded on all sides) and survived. The way he survived was so ridiculous that he was brought to court and almost fined/put in jail: He fought the fire with another fire.

He was in the thick bush with white hot fire closing in the distance. He lit a tree on fire where he was and let it spread. He hit the floor and let his fire blackened all the surrounding trees. Afterwards when the real fire was approaching, it couldn't get to him because of his pocket of burnt trees.

The man claimed back in the day, this was common knowledge.

Does this have any validity / is this the thing to do if surrounded by a forest fire ?

  • 2
    This technique was demonstrated on the reality TV show, "Man, Woman, Wild". I have heard of it being used else where as well, pioneers in the 1800s supposedly used this technique when facing prairie fires. Fire fighters use back fires all the time to contain fires. – Wulfhart May 23 '12 at 22:17
  • I couldn't find the article that talked about it or I'd post an answer. But back in the rodeo-chediski fire I remember reading an article about a seasoned forest fighter with about 11 rookies and the winds changed. They all ran but he stopped in a field and started a fire in the field. He tried to explain what he was going and 4 of the rookies stopped to help and the rest kept running. The 5 of them were able to hid in the burn area under some kind of emergency blankets and survive. All went to the ICU but the other 7 weren't so lucky. – MaskedPlant May 25 '12 at 16:25
25

This does have a basis in a known technique, back burning, but by your description the application wasn't orthodox.

From Wikipedia:

Back burning is a way of reducing the amount of flammable material during a bushfire by starting small fires along a man made or natural firebreak in front of a main fire front. It is called back burning because the small fires are designed to 'burn back towards the main fire front'. The basic reason for back burning is so that there is little material that can burn when the main fire reaches the burnt area. The firebreaks that may be used to start a line of fires along could be a river, road or a bulldozed clearing etc.

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    Thanks, wasn't sure if this was just another old wive's tale. – dudeofea May 17 '12 at 20:50
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    @dudeofea I can't speak for the truth of the particular instance you cite, but back-burning is very common practice for wildland fire-fighting, and a well-known technique for creating safety zones in areas where none exist naturally. It's use in emergency situations was revolutionary in Mann Gulch (so unfamiliar that some firefighters lost their lives because they did not understand what Dodge was doing), but since that incident, every fire-fighter knows this emergency technique, and many carry flares in their packs just for this purpose. – Lost Sep 23 '12 at 5:43
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    Parks Canada tried doing a back burn a couple weeks ago and ended up making things worse and burning down a bunch of ranches. Five homesteads were lost as well as a bunch of out buildings, farm equipment, mot to mention all the feed the cows were supposed to graze on over the winter. – ShemSeger Sep 25 '17 at 1:53
17

This sounds like an "escape fire" (Wikipedia); see also the Mann Gulch Fire for a real life example.

One of the The Gods Must Be Crazy movies had this technique used in a wildfire in the African savannah.

  • +1 for Mann Gulch reference. However, note there was some controversy about whether the fire he set is what caught up to those trying to make it to the ridge... or whether it mattered. – Lost Jun 8 '12 at 3:03
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    Two key things about an escape fire: 1) it only works against a grass fire, not a forest fire, and 2) it only works if you're close enough to the main fire that the fire's updraft is generating a wind blowing towards it. – Mark Aug 27 '15 at 0:27
5

A vivid description of this is described in "Young Men & Fire"

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Men_and_Fire

Early 50's Forest service is developing smoke jumpers. At the time teams didn't train together as a team. They drop into the Mann Gulch fire, above it. Their plan was to come down the gulch opposite the fire, cross over and fight it from below.

Fire crowned, and jumped the valley. Both sides of the Missouri River end of the gulch were burning.

Dodge, the crew chief, order a retreat. If they could get above timberline the fire would only have grass and small brush to burn.

The fire wasn't moving that fast. Maybe 3-4 mph. But timberline is at 8,000 some feet. Keeping ahead while climbing, dressed in boots, tin-pants, cotton plaid shirt isn't quite the same as doing a beach jog in Malibu, CA.

Dodge lit a book of paper matches, and torched a meadow of grass, stepped across the flame, and waited. Once the fire was a few feet out, he lay down, and waited.

Fire passed him by.

A very vivid song that, within the limited scope of a folk song, is pretty accurate, was done by James Keelaghan, "Cold Missouri Waters"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dztj4X3fQps

If you want the book:

https://www.amazon.ca/Young-Men-Fire-Twenty-fifth-Anniversary/dp/022645035X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=young+men+and+fire&qid=1560912210&s=electronics&sr=8-1

Also available as an Audible book. https://www.audible.ca/pd/Young-Men-and-Fire-Audiobook/B072FDXGHR


In passing: The flame front in a grass fire is very narrow, often only being a few feet wide. (Dodges crew were caught above tree line in a dry meadow) While intensely hot, it's not unreasonable to run through it. I've read about this done by natives and settlers on the great plains. The key issue is to not inhale when passing through the flame. You will lose exposed hair, and have burns on any exposed skin.

McLean in the book describes the fire as moving at a fast walk on level ground. 3-4 mph. Flames ranging from 10 to 25 feet high. If you have been running in terror, however, you are at the ragged edge of what you can breath. Catching your wind enough to run back is daunting, probably requiring descending while going forward.

A grass fire isn't a forest fire. But even forest fires come in different grades and speeds. Ground fires move slowly, and often aren't very hot. There is more material to burn, so the flame front is deeper, and the ground hotter. With smoke it's hard to maintain a consistent direction. Crown fires are roast everything in their path.

If you wanted to test these ideas:

  • Start small.
  • Dress well.
  • Have someone on the other side with a wet blanket if you emerge with your clothing on fire.

I used to sing ballads as part of the entertainment on long canoe expeditions with teens. Keelaghan's song was a hit.

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