Firestorms & The Surveyor

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After an early and hot spring, a hotter summer, and the moisture content of live trees dropping to 50%, from August 10th to the 24th of this year our community of Woodland, Idaho was literally surrounded by wildfires. From our home, the fires were stopped ¾ mile to the south, ¾ mile to the west, 1.5 miles to the north and 1.5 miles to the east. For two weeks, whenever we left the office to attend to a survey, the wind would rise and we would have to hurry home to be sure the fire lines held. They seldom did. Then came the 40 mile per hour gusts on August 14th. On this day residents of Kamiah proper were treated to a show seldom seen by man. Our Corral Creek fire had been slowly approaching Kamiah from the northwest, the Lolo Creek fire from the north and the Carribel fire from the northeast and the arrival of 40 mph winds merged the three just across the River from Kamiah. Winds carried burning debris a quarter mile from ridge to ridge, creating new fires that spawned more fires, until the whole panorama across the bend of the Clearwater River, from west, to northwest, to north, northeast, east and southeast was at once a blazing inferno, amongst which were hundreds of homes and people.

There are some truisms that congeals from a firestorm in these conditions: 1. Those who leave, lose their homes; 2. Those who stay, might save their homes; 3. Those homes with junipers and conifers next to them cannot be saved; 4. If you have a home and outbuildings you have to choose which to save, there is not time for both; 5. Help your neighbor and you will look up and see your own home ablaze. 6. Electricity, water pressure, bulldozers, airplanes, helicopters and firefighters all leave when the going gets this tough. 7. Having a backup generator free of ethanol and knowing how to wire it into the house system, and thus to energize the well, is the key to saving your house. 8. Fire impacts the Land Boundary Surveyor.

Because there was fire all around, Woodland became known among the firefighters as "the donut fire", but the existence of the donut hole was not thanks to the firefighters. Rather it was the many private landowners with bulldozers, tractors and discs who saved the day. For a time all four roads providing ingress and egress to the Woodland community were closed by fire. Not that there were firefighters or deputies barring traffic (on the 14th they were long gone), the fires themselves closed the roads. Not that any officer warned the residents of the approaching flames, they didn’t. Three times when Chad spread warnings he was told that no one else had been there.

Many are the tales that we hear from our clients of flight from their homes down those roads. One great-grandmother tells of leading the train of family cars as they fled the fires encircling their homes, "There was fire on both sides of the road, and then it got so smoky that I couldn’t see the road and I almost wrecked right there. It was like driving in a sea of goat’s milk, all the same, up, down and on both sides. Then I saw the white fog line outside the driver’s window and I followed that slowly until we finally got out of the fire. I had the window down to see better and the fire actually came in the window and singed my hair. I thought I was going to die!"

This fire disaster hyphenated one of our land boundary survey projects. We started two days before the fire by having an old timer show us where the old Nez Perce Allotment fence corners were before the modern surveys of the 1980’s proportioned the exterior boundaries of the section and then re-projected the interior 1/16th corners.

When the client showed us his four ancient fence corners we did not find any monuments, except for the new ones 50 feet away causing the litigation. In fact, at his SE fence corner, which is also the C-N-S1/64th corner and the SE corner of Nez Perce Allotment #1547, we got down on hands and knees and crawled under the blackberry, rose and hawthorn bushes to the fence corner. The only thing we found there was the fence post and a basalt stone. We carefully scrapped this stone to remove the dry lichens and then scrubbed it with dry grass; with no results. The lack of a marked stone was not surprising for in 21 years of looking for allotment corner monuments we have only found one marked stone. Usually the only remaining evidence of the 1891 Allotment corner is the ancient fence corner and rusty wires.

Timidly Returning
Then came the fire. Two weeks later we timidly returned to find the client’s house still standing. It was still standing because a neighbor came up three times to put out spot fires, and consequently lost three of his own out-buildings. We found a second neighbor, who was a party to the boundary dispute, removing roofing metal from his burned out basement.

It was a puzzlement how the second neighbor’s house had taken fire. It did have one pine tree nearby, about 30 feet away, and all of the needles were brown from top to bottom but the tree had not burned. Some blowtorch had set fire to the back of his shop, which set fire to the house, which scorched the pine tree. We concluded that the fire had come up a shallow brushchoked draw at the back of the shop.

Now, this was interesting because the hawthorn bushes in that draw still had their leaves on. What furnished the fuel for the blowtorch? It was the dried blackberry and rose bushes, which burned like gasoline, and the dead wood inside the canopy of hawthorns. Six hundred and sixty feet down this mostly burned out draw was our disputed C-N-S 1/164th corner, and what a surprise awaited us there!

There was no longer a need to crawl under blackberry and rose bushes, because they were all gone. The first thing that we saw at the burned out fence corner was a ¾"x 16" bolt barely protruding from the mineral ground. Next to the bolt I picked up the stone that I had so carefully studied and rejected before, brushed off the soot, and this is what we saw:

The roman numerical 16 was often used by County Surveyors in this area, but they always added a "CS". Lacking the CS, we believe this stone to be an original and rare 1891 GLO Allotment corner monument, run in on the three mile method; marked wrong but still the Allotment corner. Our client now has "the fundamental law of original corners" in his favor.

Another benefit to surveyors from fire was found at the NW property corner. Here, because all of the fence posts had been burned, we were able to drag the wires out of the area, use the magnetometer and discover a 5/8" rebar down about 3". Prior to the fire this had been impossible. The lesson is that where defense against trespass, conflict and litigation may require it, dismantling fences and fence corners so the magnetometer can be used may be justified. Again, at his NW corner our client has a monument working for him that would not have been found except for the fire.

The markings on the stone at the C-N-S1/64th corner left us elated for another reason. The situation confirmed a theory that we had long held, that the markings on iron rich stones are lost to, and into, corrosion. The cloud of dust from a surveyor’s wire brush is often the departure of the very evidence that he is looking for. Corrosion on an iron rich basalt stone in this country of 30" of average annual precipitation is an electrochemical process. Theoretically those marks can be restored from the corrosion by one of the three ReDox processes, the most obvious being the use of an oxygen starved fire to reduce the oxide to its original state, similar to "smelting". The theory, until this moment it had been a theory, is that the markings were oxidized by electrolysis into an oxide coating and those markings can be restored by an oxygen deprived fire.

The cloud of dust from a surveyor’s wire brush is often the departure of the very evidence that he is looking for.
We had noticed before in burned over areas that all of the rocks and stones looked "young". Young as in "the Rocky Mountains look young when compared to the Appalachians because the Rockies have not been so weathered". Since the formula of 2Fe2O3 + 3C  4Fe(l) + 3CO2 is the reduction of iron oxide to the pure iron metal in the presence of heated carbon monoxide, the formula would be much the same for restoring the corroded molecules back to the higher state of the iron rich basalt stone. Extremely hot carbon monoxide gas wants oxygen molecules more than the oxide can resist, thus reducing the oxide to its original state as part of the stone. While the above formula for the restoration of iron requires a heat of 2280°F, 300° below the melting point of iron, it appears that the reduction of the oxide of basalt stones can happen at the prolonged lower temperatures of forest fires, about 1500°F.

Fires as a Metaphor to the Land Boundary Surveyor
Smelting of iron ore is a 6,000 year old technology, but it is more pertinent to a Land Boundary Surveyor in basalt regions than the new 4 year degrees emphasizing double proportioning. Continuing that thought, a Land Boundary Surveyor from Idaho should not attempt to "reduce by fire" a limestone monument in Kansas, for he will be rewarded with a pile of white powder, just like the Romans found when they burned the limestone Temple of Solomon. What works in one area does not work in another, and this and similar facts are what have driven separate licensing for each of the 50 states. Oh, the things we learn from fire.

Chad has been a pyro ever since, at age four, he watched his older brother set fire to the underside of the family’s upholstered rocking chair, with their mother setting in it. His fascination with surveying did not start until the age of 22 when the USFS mingled his firefighting with survey work. Upon his return to college he left fire fighting behind and changed his major from Forestry to Land Surveying, but Linda still thinks he’s pretty hot.

Six Year Survey Degree

Herein we see that a degree in Chemical Engineering could be an asset to a Land Boundary Surveyor, therefore we must surely expand our education requirements to six years, with two years required in inorganic chemistry. Just think of what such educated surveyors could do with that knowledge. Many would go so far as to change beer and whiskey into concentrated urea. Did you know that 100 years ago cirrhosis of the liver was known as the "surveyor’s disease"? Oh, the things we learn while studying fire.

A 3.770Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE