If you've ever hiked or even driven through Rocky, you have probably noticed the big piles of wood that resemble teepees arranged between the trees. "How did they get there?" and "What are they for?" are some of the questions that came to mind when I first noticed them;little did I know that not only would I get answers, but also a firsthand look into exactly how and why they are made.
Doug Watry, Fuels Specialist, and I drove out to Eagle Mountain off of Bear Lake Road with a van behind us full of energetic teenagers on a trip led by Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions (LFFE). We met up with Andy Forget, fire crew member, and Tyler Cypher & Vidal Carrillo, Hotshot crew members, who assisted Doug in leading us during the slash pile project.
Slash piles are built as a way to "fight fires before they start," a preventative measure that stops fires from spreading rapidly. During the late spring and summer is when trees and branches are cut and built into piles. The other months of the year are dedicated to closely monitoring the piles while they burn in the midst of the wintery snow.
There are six steps, respectively, in creating the perfect pile. Before we got started building, Doug made sure to properly instruct the group and reminded us to "be safe, have fun and do good work."
1. First, it is important to build the pile in a good spot. It can't be too close to the trees and a great way to choose the right spot is to "find a hole to the sky" where branches and leaves are cleared away.
2. The pile should also be centered in the middle of the slash. Carrying the sawed brush can be exhausting, so Doug says that you shouldn't have "to do more work than you have to."
3. Start building the log deck base, which will hold the "nest" off the ground. This may reduce supersoil heating by soaking up moisture from the ground and blocking the heat from reaching the soil.
4. Find the "light, flashy" material and pile it on top of the base into a nest. It should be tightly packed and resemble a stack of pancakes. This nest is what's lit when igniting the pile.
5. Grab the heavier branches and slash to stack on top of the nest. This will help compact the nest so wind-driven snow will not penetrate the center.
6.Find bigger, sturdier logs to build the walls around the pile. Keep the walls at a 75 degree angle and be careful to not leave any big holes or cracks between logs;you don't want the holes to fill up with snow or else it will be hard to light the pile and fail to burn completely.
The steps to building the ideal pile are pretty simple to follow, but the work is anything but easy. Doug said this was the "most energized and motivated group" he has ever seen. They now hold a two-week record for the most piles built per person per hour. The group from Memphis, TN was made up of nine high school friends, one middle school student and two guides who were spending 16 days fly fishing, camping in the backcountry and volunteering.
LFFE is an organization that not only takes teens (and sometimes their parents) on fly fishing trips, but emphasizes the conservation and natural elements of the outdoor world. All fishing is catch-and-release and every trip includes a service learning project where the members give back to the community. We are so glad they chose to serve at Rocky Mountain National Park!