Talking about fire on the ground and smoke on the water

Driving home this afternoon from Nacogdoches I decided abruptly to take a drive through the Angelina National Forest. I turned off U.S. 69 near the Neches River on the road that leads to the Upland Island Wilderness Area and the Bouton Lake campground.

It has been years since I drove the whole enchilada from the other side of where the road leads. I didn’t know how far it was to Bouton Lake this way. I didn’t want to spend all afternoon driving so I decided I would drive five miles and then turn around if all I saw was road.

As I drove about five miles I had noticed some guys in a little four-wheel buggy of sorts — something like John Deere’s Gator — but I don’t think that’s what it was in which they were actually motoring. The guys waved. In fact, everyone I encountered driving down this road waved. Friendly bunch.

Just up the road it began to get smoky and I could then see some fire crawling along the edge of where the timberline begins just off the road.

As the woods start to get a little smoky I realize I am without marshmellows.

I kept driving a little ways and noticed that the fire went off into the woods for a little ways. My first instinct was to call for a fire department or the forest service. Conditions have been a bit dry lately in East Texas and certain areas have been beset, for a number of reasons, by woods arsonists. But I thought, well, those guys had just been driving away from where the fire began.

The more I thought about the fire the more I began to wonder if this was a so-called “controlled burn,” or a fire intentionally and legally set for one reason or the other. In the older days, fire from natural sources such as lightning used to create their own sort of controlled burn. Those fires would destroy the underbrush and allow in certain areas a park-like ground cover in the woods. Growth and Smokey the Bear put the brakes on uncontrolled woods fires in more recent years. Of course the Smokey campaign was well-intentioned but perhaps sort-sighted in selling to the public that all wildland fires were bad. They’re not.

I came to my five-mile limit and turned around. A little ways down the road I saw the two men in the little four-wheel utility vehicle. They were parked in front a big pickup truck which had attached an empty trailer, I suppose for the little cart they were using. I stopped to ask about the fire and almost felt stupid asking because I noticed some type of tank in the bank of the truck of the type used for various types of fuel. Fuel like that used for setting controlled woods fires.

" I'll gas up my hot rod stoker we'll get hotter than a poker/ You'll be broke but I'll be broker tonight we're settin' the woods on fire." Hank Williams

One of the men told me he could understand why I would ask and seemed almost grateful that I did. He called his fire a “very controlled burn” and said that the fire was just creeping along the edge of the woods. I didn’t askĀ  them why they had set it. I figured if they wanted me to know, they’d have told me. I just wanted to satisfy my mind that it wasn’t a wildfire, which I did.

My little fire pictures, thankfully, are nothing compared to the fire pictures I have seen like the ones coming from the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.

Fire boats deluge the oil rig Deepwater Horizon about 50 miles off the tip of the Louisiana coast. USCG photo

The rig, located about 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., exploded overnight injuring more than a dozen workers, three critically. The U.S. Coast Guard said 11 workers on board the rig, owned by Transocean, were still missing despite word from a Plaquemines Parish government official who said they’d been found.

I’m happy my encounter with fire worked out okay. Let us all hope those missing from the explosion and fire on the Gulf of Mexico are found safe and sound.

By the way, old Hank’s wonderful songs depicted a lot of the backwoods, cracker life of the South of his time. That makes me wonder if all the words in “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” were strictly figurative?

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