LAKE PLACID — Forest fires along the railroad line scrambled eight fire departments into the sweltering afternoon heat on Thursday and put an Adirondack Scenic Railroad train to work as fire truck.
The flames made real the high-fire danger the Department of Environmental Conservation says exists due to extended dry weather.
Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department fire driver Matt Colby said they received a call about 2:25 Thursday afternoon with reports of a first fire about a mile down the track from the Lake Placid Fire Station toward Ray Brook.
The area is not accessible by any road.
“The train backed down from the fire, and we were able to get by them with an all-terrain vehicle,” Colby said.
He and two other firefighters made the first attack.
“The train crew loaded up a bunch of our gear and eight other firemen and shuttled them down,” he said.
The initial attack team found the first blaze had burned an area about 40 yards wide and 200 yards long.
“The first fire was smoldering; it had burned itself up to a small stream,” Colby said.
“It burned all the undergrowth, shrubs, stumps, trees. An hour into it, we looked up the rail bed and saw another area smoldering and thought we should investigate.”
A second fire, about 2 miles further down the tracks, was ablaze.
“We found flames about 30 feet above the tree line,” Colby said.
Flames were jumping through the tree tops.
Fire trucks could not access that location, so crews hiked in from dirt trails and used ATV equipment to ferry personnel and gear for establishing trenches.
The train helped carry additional personnel from the Saranac Lake side after making it past the first fire scene.
Railroad engineers had also spotted the second fire and alerted Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department to that location, Colby said.
Responding with what they had, firefighters set up manual pump stations in the swamps and in small streams, Colby said, and used water backpacks — sometimes called Indian cans — as nearby crews cut a fire road around the 3-acre area blaze.
Eventually, he said, “Saranac Lake was able to locate a water source closer to the Saranac Lake golf course, then we set up portable ponds.”
The smoky, dusty work continued until well into the evening. Engineers and volunteers on the railroad helped fire departments pack up gear and return it to their stations.
In addition to local fire personnel, seven DEC forest rangers responded to the blaze.
DEC spokesman David Winchell said the second fire caught in a stand of tight spruce next to the railroad tracks.
“The fire was crowning, spreading from the top of one tree to another instead of moving across the ground,” he said.
The Lake Placid fire crews did not get back into their station until after 10 p.m.
Seven DEC forest rangers worked to put the fires out, along with fire companies from Paul Smiths-Gabriels, Bloomingdale, Wilmington, Upper Jay, AuSable Forks, Keene, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
The fire started on state forest land that sprawls between Lake Placid and Ray Brook, south of Route 86 and north of development at Alford Pond.
“Both fires were right on the edge of the rail-bed, where the gravel stops,” Colby said.
The State Office of Fire Prevention and Control visited the spots early Friday morning, along with officials from U.S. Homeland Security.
“They went in to see if they could figure out what caused it,” Colby said.
REALLY DRY FOREST
Any ember could spark more flames.
“It is really dry in the forest,” Colby said.
Winchell said DEC is helping in the investigation.
“At this point we suspect it has something to do with railroad operations.”
Five forest rangers went back into the charred area Friday along the crews from Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility crews to help look for hot spots, where fire may be smoldering.
“It clearly demonstrates just how easily fires can start and how easily they can spread during high fire-danger periods,” Winchell said.
Another blaze was sparked recently by an unattended campfire, he said. Campfires are prohibited in Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, he noted in a press release.
In addition to local fire departments, state authorities here are part of the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Compact, an organization set up to add firefighting personnel in the event of a large forest fire.
“Each of the members can request assistance when they need additional resources,” Winchell said.
Here are tips from DEC on careful burning:
- Use existing campfire rings when possible, keep fires small and scrape away duff and other flammable material in a 10-foot circle to help avoid spreading flames.
- Never leave a campfire unattended, drown it with water when done, wetting down all embers, coals and sticks. Stir, add more water and stir again.
- Prepare meals on a cooking stove instead of a campfire.
- Avoid burning brush, especially late morning through early evening and whenever windy.
- Keep barbecue grills away from brush, grass and other flammable materials.
- Don’t dispose of charcoal ashes or embers until they are cool to the touch.
- The illegal use of fireworks can also start wildfires.