A Sense of Place: The Strike Tree
By Peter M. Leschak
In early afternoon of June 6, while transferring tomato plants from a cold frame into our backwoods garden in northern Minnesota, I noticed a thunderhead in the south. A single storm cell, dark and burgeoning in an otherwise clear sky, was churning in my direction. I hustled the last three plants into the soil, fixed for whatever moisture might fall. As the cell roiled overhead and the sun disappeared, a few plump raindrops splattered in the dust. I heard a lone crack of thunder; but in a few minutes, sunlight returned. I hand-watered the tomatoes.
Several hours later, at dusk, the DNR fire duty officer phoned to say a fire had been spotted in the woods near Beatrice Lake, about three miles north of our cabin. I was on call for the Side Lake station, so I threw on fire-resistant Nomex shirt and pants, slipped on my lug-soled boots, and harnessed a radio to my chest.
As I drove to the DNR Forestry garage to pick up a fire engine, I switched on the radio and monitored voice traffic from a local volunteer fire department that had also been paged. I heard access to the fire was difficult, and no one had reached it yet. Once in the fire engine, I radioed the duty officer to request a couple of additional DNR firefighters.
About 10 minutes later, as I drew near the scene and wound down a gravel road hemmed in by dense conifers, one of the volunteers radioed in from the fire. He said the fire might be 5 acres-hard to tell in the dark-burning in a Norway pine plantation. "It's a circle," he said, "a ring of fire."
I immediately thought of the thunderclap I'd heard seven hours earlier. Had a lightning bolt ignited this fire? It tallied. For a blaze to grow that large in calm weather beneath the humid forest canopy, it must have been burning for hours. Because it was remote, it probably wasn't set by humans. Would there be a strike tree out there, evidence of lightning surging through a trunk to the ground? My mandatory report would demand a cause.
Around the next curve, the woods flashed red with the light of a fire engine's rotating beacons. I parked behind the truck and approached the fire chief for a briefing.
The blaze, he told me, had been spotted by a teenager on a four-wheeler. He'd sped home to dial 911. I raised an eyebrow, but the chief said he didn't suspect the kid started it. The boy had guided a department squad into the fire, more than 100 yards off the trail. I agreed it didn't fit the profile of an arson set.
I locked in the front hubs of my fire engine, shifted into four-wheel drive, and followed the kid on the four-wheeler to the fire. The old logging road quickly narrowed to a trail. The ground was firm, but branches and stems brush-whipped the body of the truck, rattling the mirrors and twanging the antennas. A half-mile in, my guide stopped and pointed to the right. I got out and peered into the darkness, sniffing the sweet aroma of singed pine bark and burning needles, but not seeing any flickers of flame.
"Just go that way," the boy said. "You'll find it."
I affixed a head lamp to my helmet and slung a 5-gallon pump can onto my back. Before leaving the engine, I turned on the emergency flashers to serve as a beacon. Fighting fire at night can be disorienting, and it's embarrassing to lose your truck. I steered toward voices in the dark.
In a few minutes my head lamp beam was diffused by thick smoke, and I heard the crackle of combustion. I stepped onto blackened ground and saw an arc of fire ahead. The flames were about 2 feet high and backing leisurely through a stand of 20-year-old trees. Four volunteer firefighters with pump cans had knocked down most of the blaze. I joined in to finish it off, vigorously working the can's "trombone."
In 10 minutes the two DNR firefighters I'd requested arrived; in less than half an hour, only scattered embers remained, glowing in the dark like distant stars. I released the volunteers, and my partners and I patrolled the perimeter of the burn to ensure the edge was cold before we left it for the night.
Next morning we returned to hunt for hot spots and for the cause of the fire. A couple of punky stumps were openly smoking. Other remnants of fire we ferreted out with our noses and by using bare hands to probe for latent heat in suspicious places, such as a swath of white ash (denoting hotter burning) along the bole of a deadfall.
We crisscrossed the burn, about 2 1/2 acres. Sniffing, poking, and scratching, we exposed a half-dozen hot spots that we dug out or chopped up with pulaskis and sprayed with pump cans.
As we pursued elusive heat, I kept an eye out for evidence of ignition. Since the initial report mentioned "ring of fire" and there'd been little wind to shove flames in one direction or another, it made sense to focus on the center of the burn as point of origin. But a search there turned up nothing.
The terrain was essentially flat, so slope would have exerted little influence on fire spread. (Fire runs faster, therefore farther, uphill.) A lofty snag towering above the canopy might have been a likely suspect for a strike tree, but the pines were more or less of uniform height and there was nothing like that.
After more than an hour hunting, I revisited a hot spot we'd worked first thing that morning. There, on the north flank of the fire, closer to the perimeter than to the center, I ran my fingers through the ash to ensure it was cold, then pulled the strip of pink flagging we'd tied to a branch to mark it. As I turned to move on, I saw the strike tree.
I've seen mature trees that were literally blown apart and shredded by a lightning bolt, with limbs and chunks strewn like shrapnel for yards in every direction. By comparison, this strike appeared almost gentle, a christening rather than a kill shot. The fresh scar looked as if the roller nose of a chain saw had been frisked down the trunk, barely cutting through the cambium.
It appeared likely the young pine would survive this lash and continue to grow. I found that pleasing. This tree had taken the hit, served as conduit for the lightning that started the fire that helped to nurture neighboring trees. It had delivered fire to its fellows.
Actually, it was a lovely burn. The fire had been low-intensity, burning evenly through the plantation. It lightly singed the tree trunks at the base, cooked encroaching brush, and released the nutrients in the duff. Hundreds of pines were encompassed by the black, but not a single one had been killed or even seriously damaged. If we'd purposely ignited the fire for timber-stand management, it would've been termed a success; and we joked that it was unfortunate the teenager spotted the flames before they'd had the opportunity to beneficially scorch 10, 12, or 20 acres. A look at our maps and plat book showed the fire was on private land (owned by a timber company), so when it was reported we had little choice but suppression. If it had been a state plantation, and assuming we had sufficient resources to maintain control, we might have let it run for a while, especially since it was a lightning start.
I was reminded of an American Indian folk tale set in the pre-human era when animals and trees could talk. It seems the pines were the sole possessors of the secret of fire-a significant ecological element of boreal forest and nearly every other ecosystem on the planet, working chiefly as a quick decomposer and recycler. The pines selfishly refused to share fire with other inhabitants of the earth, but during one especially cold winter, Beaver-ever busy- pilfered an ember from the pines and spread fire to the willows, birches, and other trees, who passed it along to the rest of the creatures; and thus the world as we know it arose, shaped by fire.
The earth is struck by lightning about 100 times per second, and the myths of many cultures associate thunderbolts-the celestial fire-with cosmic creative force. Our strike tree was an agent of the process, linked to the earth and sky by electricity-a pine that shared the flame. Geologic mechanisms that provide chemicals (nutrients) are too gradual for the needs of the biosphere. Fire historian Stephen Pyne wrote, "The necessity for decomposition on a grand scale is such that if fire did not exist, nature would have to invent it."
I called my firefighters over to inspect the evidence of ignition. There was nothing to indicate why that particular tree had been struck, or why the burn had progressed asymmetrically from it. Perhaps the storm cell had spewed robust downdrafts with a distinct directional component. Or maybe fuel had been more plentiful south of the strike, drawing flames that way. We didn't know. But how fine it was to witness the source, to touch the tree that was drummed by lightning.
Peter M. Leschak is a firefighter and freelance writer. His latest book is Ghosts of the Fireground, published by HarperSanFrancisco.