Firefighters spend two days on Deer Leap battling mountain fire

BRISTOL — Firefighters worked for close to 48 hours over the past weekend to contain and control a fire atop Hogback Mountain. The fire burned across two to three acres in an area situated just north of Deer Leap at an elevation of around 1,800 feet.
“We were essentially operating for 48 straight hours from first sighting until we wrapped up yesterday and declared it under control,”  Bristol Fire Chief Brett LaRose said on Monday. “You can continue to dig up there and  keep finding these hot spots. But unless you have thousands of gallons at your disposal you’re not going to completely extinguish it. We’re counting on Mother Nature to help us out.”
Atop the mountain, the area within the burn has been scoured by fire.
“It’s black. Everything is black on the surface. All the trees up there they’re burned partway up. They’re charred or just blackened from the heavy smoke and heat.”
LaRose said the department is continuing to keep an eye on the area within the fire line, and expects the fire to extinguish itself completely over the next few days.
Local and state fire experts were unable to verify the source of the fire. Likely possibilities for this time of year include lightning striking a tree or an unattended campfire, said State Fire Supervisor Lars Lund. But firefighters found no evidence at the scene to definitively support either explanation, Lund said.
Both Lund and LaRose described the fire as a “ground fire,” one that burned close to the ground, driving itself deep towards the rock ledges under the soil. Lund noted that one of the main sources of fuel for the fire were densely packed layers of pine needles under the stands of red pine atop the mountain.
LaRose said that Bristol firefighters were alerted to “heavy white smoke coming from Hogback Mountain” at around 6 p.m. Friday evening.
“You didn’t see flames you saw heavy white smoke,” he said, noting that the smoke was visible from much of Bristol.
As firefighters assembled Friday evening, the planning began.
“Responding to wildland fire fighting, at least around here, is slow and methodical,” said LaRose. “It takes planning. You don’t just race up the side of a mountain. You have to be prepared. You have to have the appropriate equipment.”
After consulting with Lund and other state wildland fire experts, LaRose dispatched four “runners” up the mountain to assess the situation. Experts could tell that the fire would not be fast moving, so at 7:45 p.m. the decision was made to pull the “hasty team” off the mountain, set a watch overnight and resume more safely with the sun’s first light.
Fire officers began planning at around 5 a.m. Saturday morning, said LaRose. And firefighters returned to the mountain at around 6:30 a.m.
Vehicles could access the area only as far up as the Bristol reservoir, said LaRose. So the department used the Bristol reservoir as its main staging area. From the reservoir, firefighters hiked to the top of the mountain to get to the fire itself.
Saturday’s first task was to cut a fire line. Then crews began working inside the fire line to remove organic matter and starve the fire out, scraping away organic matter with special “rakes on steroids,” cutting down any trees that were on fire, “digging down into the soil looking for the hot spots that could potentially spread the fire further.” Sunday that task continued, including cutting apart and removing a large smoldering tree that had begun to spew ash down the mountainside.
Both Lund and LaRose described the area of the blaze near Deer Leap as one that presented considerable safety concerns for firefighters.
“It’s extremely steep terrain. Very difficult,” said LaRose. He noted that the western and southern edges of the fire line ran right along the edge of the cliffs, 30 to 40 feet straight down.
“If you slipped, you’re going for a ride. You have to be on alert and well rested just to be up there working,” LaRose said.
LaRose praised the efforts of the Bristol and surrounding crews in controlling the fire, from those handling logistics at the Bristol fire station to those wielding heavy tools and trudging 50 pounds of water in special backpack water pumps into the fire-containment area.
Over 50 people were deployed over the weekend, Larose reported: 23 Bristol firefighters; 24 firefighters, in total, from departments in Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro; three wildland fire experts from the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (including Lund); and four volunteers from the Red Cross. Additionally, the Middlebury Fire Department’s rescue team was on alert. Vermont Emergency Management (from the Department of Public Safety) coordinated state resources. And the National Weather Service in Burlington played a critical role in providing real-time information every 30 minutes of operations and as needed, LaRose said.
“Everybody came together and did their part,” said LaRose. “It couldn’t have gone any smoother.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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