Despite reinforcements, a fire continues to burn in a charming northern town 

  • An Army Blackhawk helicopter drops a 600-pound load of water on the fire at the Lost River Gorge near Woodstock, New Hampshire on Friday, October 6, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Firefighters head up the Dilley Cliff trail to battle the Lost River Gorge fire on Friday, October 6, 2017. The unit had to turn around after the rain came and made the high pitch trail too slippery go up an fight the blaze. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Smoke rises from the fire at Lost River Gorge off of Route 112 in Woodstock, New Hampshire on Friday, October 6, 2017. The Federal government has now taken over the operations of putting out the fire. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • An Army Blackhawk helicopter picks up a 600-pound load of water at Beaver Pond to dump on the fire at Lost River Gorge in Woodstock, New Hampshire on Friday, October 6, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A Black Hawk helicopter picks up a 600-pound load of water to drop on the Lost River Gorge fire near Woodstock on Friday. The fire has burned more than 70 acres in the area. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Local Woodstock firefighter Tyler Clark ... GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, October 07, 2017

The sigh of the wind, off in the distance, told local firefighter Tyler Clark things were about to change.

He’d see the leaves, limp and still, suddenly move, sometimes gently, other times with more force. Then came the burst of orange and red, the crackling sound, the spreading of a freshly-fed fire, alive with oxygen.

“You could predict it,” Clark said Friday, during a break from fighting the Woodstock wildfire, in its fourth day at the time. “You’d hear the wind rushing and you knew. (The fire) would rush up the trees and spread to the tops of other trees. Everyone would run until we found a safe area. Then we’d reevaluate.”

Reevaluating is a constant part of the process in Woodstock, and sizing up Day 4 of this widespread blaze, cause still unknown, featured a mix of good and bad news.

First, the bad: State and local officials chose to close the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves this week, 10 days early, robbing Woodstock and Lincoln and other charming towns in Grafton County of precious tourism dollars.

And as of Friday afternoon, officials had no idea when the blaze, which had already burned more than 70 acres on this rocky slope full of trees, would be under control.

“It could be four or five more days if the weather cooperates,” said Dave Walker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Incident Command Team. “But if not, it could be another one or two weeks, or longer.”

On the flip side, it rained Friday morning, steady and hard for a couple of hours. And while that meant firefighters were forced to leave the hillside because of slippery conditions, and the two helicopters dumping thousands of gallons of water over numerous hot spots were grounded, a higher power, a woman’s touch, was welcome, indeed.

“This weather is good,” Walker said. “Hopefully it will be penetrating and dampen the duff and allow Mother Nature to help us with some of the suppression activity.”

Walker, who said officials have not determined what caused the fire, is part of a changing of the guard, from local to federal. For three days, the Woodstock Fire Department and state firefighters worked with volunteers to battle the fires that covered three ridges along Route 112.

After a few days, though, it became apparent that more help was needed, that the fire was stubborn and hard to reach, with hot spots hiding in crevices and under tight areas below trees.

I was in the area Wednesday night and was part of a mix of cars lined up on the road’s shoulder, snapping photos, in awe of a different kind of tourist attraction, one that made it impossible to look away, yet left everyone with worry and apprehension.

We saw flames shoot up trees – red spruce and balsam fir – like solar flares jumping from the sun. Those fires settled down quickly, then reappeared again and again and again.

Meanwhile, smaller spot fires twinkled like lights from a city skyline, all simmering and waiting to grow and establish themselves.

That’s why the fire’s classification has changed, from Type 4 to Type 3. The Incident Command System’s team officially took over the operation at 7 Friday morning, adding to the muscle already provided by local and state resources.

“It’s moved into a higher complexity of logistics,” Walker said. “It requires a higher level of staffing and resources.”

Speaking by phone this week, Forest Ranger Captain Doug Miner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources referred to the duff, the highly flammable, organic dry material that covers the hillside.

“A dirty burn,” Miner called it. “It’s not a 100 percent burn because of the ledges and crevices in the Notch area. The fire will burn deep.”

“It hides well,” Walker added. “You have to find ways to mop that up.”

One way, the hard way, is to climb, sometimes on all fours. Two crews of 20 lined up Friday morning, bright in yellow and red vests and hard hats, walking single file between to spruce trees that formed the entrance to the Dilly Cliff Trail.

They carried chainsaws, Pulaskis, shovels and pickaxes, all tools of the trade, all designed to dig for hot spots in the nooks and crannies, exposing them to water, which was on the way.

“Until we’re able to dig and mix with water, the heat will exist,” Walker said. “It may not show with just smoke, but a little more oxygen will start to flame.”

Soon, the rain came. “We’ve been hoping for this for a couple of days,” said Dave Kullgren, the State Forestry crew boss.

Once the sun popped out in late morning, water was hauled in by two helicopters, an Army Black Hawk, with a 600-gallon bucket, and a contracted Jet Ranger, which carried close to 100 gallons.

Each flew all day, run after run. Officer Diron Thompkins of the U.S. Forest Service gave us access to Beaver Pond, where the Black Hawk hovered to scoop up water, its rotor blades pushing air down hard, causing mist and circular ripples.

In minutes, the Black Hawk was dumping its water over the smoke-filled terrain, and suddenly 600 gallons looked and felt more like water from a leaky faucet, not a deluge, when compared to the huge landscape that needed to be tamed.

But the work continued, with the Black Hawk returning again and again, and the firefighters crawling in what was described as backbreaking work, and the residents of the area bringing supplies to the command center.

“It’s people and different agencies coming together very quickly,” Officer Thompkins said. “It’s volunteering, people dropping off coffee and food.”

Clark ate a piece of vanilla cake left over from a recent tribute, held in honor of a beloved local matriarch who had died recently. As he ate, Clark spoke about the fight being waged behind him. He’s been at it since since Tuesday morning at 6:30, when the first report came in.

He described obstacles, like the trees that had fallen, and the steep, rocky terrain, and the demoralizing feeling of seeing the previous day’s work wiped out by a night of unattended heat and smoke.

And he talked about that sudden sigh he’d heard in the distance, the one that pushed the leaves and fed the fire and made him and his buddies run for their lives.

“The wind started and the fire spread like crazy,” Clark said. “We heard this intense crackling, like throwing pinecones into a fire. Scary. It’s been a hard one to fight.”