Here in Northern New Mexico, March heralds not only Spring, but the ditch cleaning season. Ditches (or acequias) must be cleaned of weeds, grasses, small trees and bushes, built up sand, and trash yearly to allow for efficient flow of irrigation water. Many folks around here do it the old fashioned way – by burning. Hence, the local volunteer fire departments are quite busy this time of year.
Last week, as I was nearly home I noticed fire response vehicles trying to make their way down to the bosque on dirt roads and through driveways. My Main Man (M3) had already responded, but I couldn’t raise him on the cell phone. I made a guess that if he wasn’t already on scene, he would stop and help out where he could. So, I, and my still healing ankle, headed home to tend to the farm beasties.
3+ hours later, M3 returned home smelling like a fire himself. His shoes left ash in footprints on the tiled front room. In the shower, he cleaned his nostrils, rinsing the blackness from his nasal lining as best he could. Turns out this was not a ditch cleaning gone wrong, as I had suspected it was. No, this was probably an example of kids playing with matches or someone burning trash and a little fire getting out of hand, burning roughly 10 acres by the end. No one was injured and no structures were lost.
M3 reported to the scene, and since we have almost zero training at this point, he simply asked, ‘What can I do?’. He was given a heavy metal tool and went to help find smoldering items in the field. This is the tedious part of the fire fighting, but highly essential. M3 found it quite interesting – who knew breaking up cow patties could be so fun? A variety of things in such a brush fire will continue to smolder, and could ignite another fire hours later if not attended to then and there. Additionally, there was a mound of at least 100 used tires nearby; the fire approached to within 10 feet of it. If the tires had caught fire, the fire fighting experience would have been a totally different one.
This is cattle country, so the majority of it was hunting down cow patties, breaking them up with a metal tool, and soaking the broken patty with water. I wish M3 had had a chance to take a picture of the cow patty charcoals, but he had his hands full and the job and safety come first. This particular fire crossed a fence line, so the wooden fence posts had to be inspected. Many of them were cedar, slow burning like a candle wick. The bottom of each post had to be tapped, knocking the ash and charcoals to the ground. Each post and the immediate area was soaked. One neighbor had this large downed tree (I believe it to be cottonwood) and that had to be broken apart and soaked. Due to the size of it, it took quite awhile with multiple people working on it.
Overall, it was a pretty educational experience. For years, M3 had been contemplating cleaning our ditch the traditional way – by fire – and I had been reluctant to agree to it. The potential cost is too much simply to save on some physical labor. In a land that is known for it’s unexpected, sudden, and sometimes violent gusts of wind, just a little fire can quickly get out of hand.