The Fish Story

Weekend Wildfire Quite a Sight; Doing Mt. Everest for Earth Day

By JAY MANN | Apr 03, 2019

That was a mighty wild wildfire over the weekend. It was named the Spring Hills Fire of 2019, based on its apparent point of origin, the Spring Hill Pygmy Pines Plain. It now comes down to increasingly efficient forest fire forensics to expose the exact ignition point and then the cause. While arson is always in play, Saturday just didn’t seem like an arsony type day. Of course, a hot arsonist might have recognized that and … You’re right, I should just let the experts figure out from whence came the first spark. But what about that popular bonfire area down thataway? Sorry, I’ll let them do their work.

As to the Spring Hills Fire, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Pinelands forest fire quite that, well, ablaze. After dark, its look for folks crossing over the Big Bridges was just plain inferno freakish, all “Is Paris Burning?” like. More like 11,000 acres “Up in Smoke.”

By the by, those burnt acres include miles of strategic backburning done by the N.J. Forest Fire Service – heading the wildfire off at the pass by pre-burning vegetative “fuel” up ahead.

IT WAS SCALDING: Wildfire can burn hot and cold – to some degree. This latest blaze was spitting fire. I was told by one firefighter there were 30-foot flames – and that was above and beyond the height of the trees, i.e. those flaming licks were sky-high.

If you recall the historic May 15, 2007, Warren Grove Bombing Range Fire, it was well traveled and far reaching but was more of a tree-topper, so speedy it burned comparatively cool. The Spring Hill Fire burned a bit slower and far hotter. The truly intense smoke clouds – and that sky glow at night – were testament to its saturation burning. Despite the blaze’s no-prisoners approach to anything in its path, it was unintentionally forgiving to humanity, missing built-upon areas, which would have been in hot water.

The weather played into the blaze in a couple major ways. The steady 20- to 25-mph south winds moved things along at a decent clip, but there was also something else in the air. Per the National Weather Service, a form of atmospheric inversion from thick and humid air aloft literally pressed the blaze down from above. This added to the fire’s top-to-bottom, hot-as-hell burn.

This type of hot and hard burn, more common in wildfires out west, is an O2 air sucker, making it easily deadly. The 50 to 60 NJ Forest Fire Service personnel fighting the flames recognized this all-too-real danger, contended with it, and managed to successfully fight the raging fire with no one being injured … or worse. I can’t say they did a great job … they did an utterly astounding job! Textbook.

The press-down atmospheric conditions were also behind the smoke and smell of the blaze traveling easily 100 miles north, leading to a daisy chain of emergency calls to distant police departments from folks thinking a fire was right around the corner. Media sniffed it out from even farther away. National TV channels picked it up and used the N.J. wildfire story to anchor weekend newscasts. Aerial coverage of Pinelands events like this always amazes far-off folks who picture Jersey as just one big factory state.

Wildlife losses from this hot burner will likely leave a mark in the ecosystem. However, it could have been astronomically worse … in just a few weeks. Hibernating wildlife, i.e. most Pinelands creatures, were still below ground, hopefully deep enough to unknowingly weather the inferno traipsing around just above. Survivors now emerge in a full-blown “What in the hell!” mode.

As to the early-out frogs, most notably spring peepers and wood frogs, they were well ponded; fully dedicated to hanging close to watery spawning areas. That should have sheltered them from the heat. Easy for me to say.

My main wildlife concern is for box turtles, which are also early risers. They often come out to mull about at the first signs of spring – doggedly committed to moving around at just beyond a snail’s pace. The odds of them outpacing a rapidly advancing fire line? Here’s hoping their carapaces did their protective duties. In the blackened wake of the not-as-hot Warren Grove fire, I morosely tabulated over two dozen turtle casualties. I’ll soon be exploring the latest new burned-out zones, getting a better read on how wildlife fared – or unfared.

As must be scientifically noted with all Pine Barrens wildfires – including prescribed burns – they are an instrumental and indispensable part of the Pinelands ecosystem. Hot-burning blazes are required to perpetuate scrub pines, which use the heat to launch next-generation seeds. This not only spreads the species, but also prevents taller-growing types of pines from taking over the exclusive pygmy pines plains.

As to the equally indigenous scrub oaks, they aren’t overly hot on fires. They’re simply so tough they persevere, though remaining stunted in the burn/reburn process.

Regular burns also help extinguish many invasive insect species. The indigenous bugs of the pines have adapted to being regularly burned out of house and home – temporarily.

Despite the eco-essentialness of wildfires, the collateral wildlife damage can nonetheless be extreme. Again, had this major fire hit next month, it would have been eco doom for many a critter.

TROUT TO-DO: Seen Monday above Tuckerton’s Lake Pohatcong: An osprey with a fish in its talons being nastily put upon by a thievery-minded bald eagle. A witness to the to-do didn’t see which one won, though the thought-majestic eagle is famed for its petty larcenous ways.

The battled-for meal was likely one of 630 trout recently placed in the lake as part of a “pre-season” stocking. The lake will eventually receive a total of 2,510 man-raised trout from the Pequest Trout Hatchery. The final fish drop-off will be 470 fish in early May. If you’ve never light-gear fished trout from the Lake Pohatcong walkway, adjacent to Route 9, grab the kids and get crackin’. License and stamps are required.

Sidebar: I had a bit of a disagreement with an old-timer who claimed the state was still taking him for a Trout Stamp. Shouldn’t be so, Joe. The regulation: “NJ residents 70 and older are exempt from fishing license and Trout Stamp requirements. A driver license or other acceptable proof of age containing date of birth and physical description will function as the actual fishing license/trout stamp for New Jersey residents 70 and over.”

Speaking of local waters, humble and beautiful Westecunk Creek – Anglicized West Creek – is in line to become a Category One waterway, part of 749 miles of state rivers and streams being targeted by the Department of Environmental Protection for such a coveted status.

“Category One waterways provide drinking water and sustain important fish and aquatic resources,” DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said. “In addition, the actions the state takes to preserve water quality for these waterways help protect ecosystems that provide important wildlife habitats and improve our quality of life.”

According to a DEP report, “The state uses a three-tiered system to designate waterways, with the top tier being those designated as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters that are to be set aside in their natural state for posterity.”

I know the ancient creek by heart – its heart. I’ve kayaked it until it came out my ears, during the many times I’d jump in for cool dips within its Pinelands’ brown waters. It is very much the same wonderful waterway it was when colonizing Europeans facilely dubbed it West Creek, ignoring the far more eloquent Lenape name Westecunk – which means, well, West Creek … but spoken with a Lenape accent.

A Cat 1 rating couldn’t happen to a nicer creek – properly pronounced crick.

MANN OVERBOARD: I want to suggest the ultimate Earth Day challenge. Follow me here to Nepal – and Mount Everest.

In disgust, China has just closed down the so-called base camp used – and abused – by mustering mountaineers readying to take on the summit of Everest.

This is bad news for me because I was that close to thinking about heading over there to scale her. Yeah, right. Hell, I get bouts of vertigo strolling up nearby Forked River Mountain, which might qualify for a Guinness World Record as the world’s bottommost “mountain,” capping out at 184 feet in what can only graciously be called altitude.

Returning to 29,029-foot Mount Everest, the infamous base camp at 17,600 feet has become the highest dumpsite in the world. It has been trashed by decades of climbers – with their sights set solely on the top of the world and not on their own multinational droppings. It has become an altitudinous repository for the filth of all nations.

By the by, the Everest base camp is looking more trashified than ever due to – you guessed it – climate change. There was a time when the total trash from a climbing season would be snowed over or avalanched under. Now, nature simply is not wiping up the mess like it used to. In fact, the garbage of yore is surfacing.

For many years, distant environmental types in Asia have been trying to shut down Camp Crap, at least until climbers get their you-know-what together. And yes, there is an untold amount of you-know-what lying where it has been deposited for well over half a century. The close-down has now been realized, though the deep-frozen foulness lingers.

So, here’s my from-a-distance thinking. It would surely be the greatest Earth Day story ever told if an eco-obsessed throng of mountaineering types would begin picking up the mess made by thousands of top-of-the-worlders. I’d gladly volunteer … but there’s that whole vertigo thing.

An Everest de-garbaging would be more than simply putting decades’ worth of deleterious discards into 5-mil Walmart gardening bags, expecting Sherpa sanitation crews to then come and do all the grunt work – as has been expected of Sherpa locals since first Everest top-reacher, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, reached the peak on May 29, 1953, with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay as his caddy-like tag-along. Not to be passed on: Norgay was likely the first human to actually reach the summit – to determine what club Sir Edmund should use for his final approach shot. Norgay didn’t care who was thought of as “first”; he was just worried about how the hell they were gonna get back down.

Anyway, an Earth Day base camp cleanup would require the pickers to then descend to more readily survivable altitudes, bearing vestiges of many climbs worth of waste.

As of now, the only functioning cleanup effort on Everest is kinda quite morbid. Crews are working to declutter the mountain’s upper slopes by removing an untold number of bodies. The total body count of lost climbers has itself been lost. Accumulatively, the grisly showing is seen as something of a detriment to the area’s tourism potential. Ya think?

There are some big names among the hard-frozen fallen. Foremost is George Herbert Mallory, who went missing on June 8-9, 1924. Mallory is possibly the true “first” human to conquer Everest. Of course, his final state of being frozen in place on the mountain’s slopes diminishes a bit from that “conquer” angle.

As Sherpas tell it, Mallory and his climbing partner, fellow Brit Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, were last seen, through binoculars, about 800 feet from the summit. That’s roughly where Sir Mallory’s mortal remains were news worthily discovered in 1999.

The Mallory/Irvine saga has led to an energetic and long-lived debate that is still as hot as Mallory’s remains are cold. Had the two men reached the summit in 1924, almost 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary … meeting their demise during descent? High altitude fistfights have broken out over this matter.

While Irvine’s body has yet to be found, his pickaxe was only recently located slightly higher up from Mallory’s remains. That is significant because Mallory was the lead climber; such a juxtaposition might indicate the two were, in fact, descending after reaching the top. But there may be far more telling evidence to be found.

As teams clear bodies from Everest, they are keeping a keen eye open for a camera that Irvine was perpetually carrying. If located, it could provide conclusive film evidence that the pair reached the summit.

More circumstantial, Mallory’s daughter said her dad was carrying a photograph of his wife during the climb. He was intent on placing it on the summit. The team of climbers who found Mallory’s body said there was no such photograph on his person.

Nagging mystery aside, the picking up of fully-failed Everest climber bodies is small potatoes when compared to the body of trash that will need to come down before the masses will once again get permission to go up. But hand-lowering tons of crap in air so thin that lifting a leg is exhausting? This is where I’ll distantly suggest hollowing out a trash chute system, akin to a luge run.

I hear you thinking “It gets no dumber than that, Jay.”

Well, it turns out great minds travel in wide circles. Just such a super-slide concept is now a prime cleanup consideration … so there.

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