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Firefighters battle heat, flames on Mount Major

Coordinated efforts squelch more than six acres of burning forest

THIS HELICOPTER, with its 100-gallon bucket, was instrumental in fighting the fire on Mount Major last week. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
July 14, 2010
ALTON — Firefighters from across the state successfully extinguished a fire last Thursday that threatened to consume large portions of Mount Major's forest.

For three days the New Hampshire Forest Rangers and fire departments from across the state fought the near seven-acre fire and 90-degree temperatures to preserve one of the Lakes Region's popular hiking destinations.

No one was seriously harmed, but several firefighters working on the mountain suffered from heat exhaustion, fatigue, and dehydration due to last week's heat wave.

Several firefighters complaining of headaches and other symptoms of heat exhaustion were taken to a nearby hospital for precautionary measures. A New Hampshire Metropolitan Medical Reserve System relief tent was set up on the mountain after a day of operations to provide firefighters suffering from heat-related ailments with IVs, air conditioning, fluids and medical supervision.

The treacherous mountain terrain compounded problems for the crews. Not only did it prevent firefighters from working at night when temperatures are typically lower, it also hampered their ability to run water hoses to the site of the flames.

"The terrain was about as ugly as you could ask for," said Alton Fire Chief Scott Williams.

Relying on a privately owned Bell JetRanger helicopter with an attached 100-gallon bucket, crews were able to gather water from a nearby "beaver pond" and dump it on the fire to contain it.

"The helicopter was essential in the early stages," said Williams. "We realized early on that we could not put our men and women up there without serious ramifications."

Even with the oppressive heat, drought conditions and unforgiving landscape, New Hampshire Forest Ranger Captain Bryan Nowell said the operation went "pretty well."

"We had a fire in the same area of Mount Major in 2008," explained Nowell. "We applied the lessons learned from that fire to help put out this one."

The fire broke out sometime Tuesday morning and was extinguished by 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon. Local firefighting crews returned on Friday to confirm the fire was over.

"The men and women who fought the fire deserve a lot of credit," lauded Williams. "We were very, very organized. We just wish it hadn't lasted so long."

Investigations into the origin of the fire are ongoing. But officials are confident that a reflector stove found on the mountainside was the cause. A tent partially consumed by flames was also found nearby.

Campfires on Mount Major are forbidden without explicit permission from the State of New Hampshire.

People from Woodman's Cove first identified the fire after they saw smoke rising from the mountainside. Their observations were verified by fire towers in the area, but hazy conditions made it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the fire initially.

Roughly 75 firefighters and related personnel were active in combating the Mount Major fire at any given time, according to Williams. Crews were taken from all corners of the state so as not to compromise local firefighting efforts.

Even despite these measures, a four-alarm fire in Gilmanton on Wednesday temporarily diverted manpower from Mount Major.

None of the hiking trails on Mount Major were affected, but the parking lot at the base of Mount Major was closed during operations.

The scattered rain showers that covered nearby communities on Thursday morning missed Mount Major. But that kind of precipitation wouldn't have made much difference, according to Nowell.

"Only a long and sustained rain over a couple days would have made a significant contribution to the firefighting effort," he said.

Luckily for firefighting crews, the heavy rains over the weekend will help to provide them with some "breathing room" for future outbreaks, according to Williams.

Still the threat of forest fires continues to be serious. Residents are urged to use caution in setting up outdoor fires and lighting off fireworks.

"People should be very careful with fires and make sure they are completely out," said Nowell. He advises everyone to check with their local fire department before starting any outdoor fire in order to prevent future conflagrations.

The private helicopter used to initially contain the fire was rented from Joe Brigham Inc. The New Hampshire National Guard has another firefighting helicopter that can distribute roughly 600 gallons of water, six times the capacity of the helicopter used to combat the fire on Mount Major.

Weston Sager can be reached at 569-3126 or wsager@salmonpress.com

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