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Country Gentleman: Campfires and forest fires

A fireplace designed for burning firewood is seen in the Afan Woodland. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

Recently I have been horrified, but not especially surprised, by the spate of huge and deadly fires that have raged throughout the countryside of so many areas and countries -- California, Colorado, Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Greece, Sweden, Canada, Russia and so on. I find myself faced with a conundrum, because I have frequently advocated the teaching and wise use of outdoor fires for survival, outdoor activities and simple pleasure. Many people associate summer holidays and weekends with outdoor barbecues. On the other hand I heard on the news that the Swedish government is threatening to fine people who have outdoor barbecues this summer. In view of their forest fires I can understand why.

We have three designated outdoor fireplaces in our Afan woods, but this summer nobody will be using them. All three places are close to water and when we do have a fire we keep a bucket handy.

Even though no rain has fallen for over a week, there is little likelihood of a forest fire in our woods. One reason is that we do not let woody debris become strewn about. When we trim out trees to give others more space and light to grow, or when we cut dead or dying branches, we make piles of them.

Our former forester, now retired, used to enjoy making bonfires, but when a friend, an environmental engineer, came from Canada to visit, he advised that it would be better to leave the piles of debris to quietly decay and return to the forest. In the meantime, these piles create a habitat and a place to escape for small forest creatures.

Most Japanese cedar (cryptomeria) plantations in Japan are, in my opinion, fire hazards. Most of them have not been trimmed out so the branches of the trees touch each other and block the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. This causes many branches to die on the tree. Dry brown cedar twigs burn really well and are excellent for starting a fire. Such easily flammable material litters the ground in cedar plantations, and in long dry conditions could easily be set ablaze. This lack of attention is no good for the trees, and leaving dead branches on the trunks gives you inferior wood with knotty holes in it. If such branches are carefully trimmed before they die, the knots grow over, leaving a pattern, but no hole.

When hunting snow hares in winter with members of the local hunting association, we would stop at lunch and gather around a fire. Even when the snow was three or four meters deep, it was always easy to gather firewood if there was a cedar plantation close by. You just reached up and snapped off the lower dead, dry cedar branches. With a forked stick the higher dead branches were also easily taken. You could gather an armful of dry sticks in minutes and they burned wonderfully well! We could brew hot tea and roast the hearts, livers and intestines of the hares we had shot, flavored with a little salt. In deep snow there was no danger of a forest fire, and when we left the lunch site we just kicked snow onto the embers. Charcoal and ashes would mingle with the forest soil and enrich it in spring.

In Canada, and almost certainly elsewhere, another potential hazard for fires is all the dead, standing trees, most of which have been killed by the combination of beetles and the fungus they bring with them. With climate change, these beetles have been moving further north into regions where the cold used to prevent the insects from thriving. Dead trees burn easily and with great heat.

It greatly troubles me to see all the dead pine trees standing in woods and forests all over Japan. Most people seem to be oblivious to the danger of forest fires in Japan.

We need to nurture our forests, clear up dead woody debris, and be prepared with the kinds of firefighting aircraft that can land and skim water from lakes and other water bodies. In mountainous areas in Canada I have seen how firestorms can leap from one side of a valley to the next.

Here at my desk, with green leafy trees all around, the sunlight dappled and gentle, and with the sound of the Torii River rushing by just meters away from my open window, the fear of forest fires might seem to be remote, but it is not.

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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