Four days ago, a pile of wood and brush was set fire on Ray Gabelein Jr.’s property off Bayview Road near the cemetery.
Thursday morning, that burn pile sent embers to a nearby pile of creosote-soaked logs that caught fire and ignited a quarter-acre of grass, logs, stumps and shrubs. A thick cloud of smoke was visible and could be smelled at the nearby intersection with State Highway 525.
“Embers have been known to stay hot for 10 days,” said H.L. “Rusty” Palmer, fire chief of South Whidbey Fire/EMS.
No one was injured by the fire, and no building damage was reported.
A total of 16 South Whidbey Fire/EMS personnel responded to the call, originally reported as a structure fire. When Deputy Chief Jon Beck arrived, he reclassified the fire and began knocking the flames down. Firefighters beat the flames within 20 minutes using 10,000 gallons of water.
Assistant Chief Paul Busch said the crew spent another 40 minutes of “mop up” duty including soaking the burn area to kill any embers hiding in stumps, roots or the grass.
The fire happened about 200 feet away from a hay barn on the property, which was not affected by the flames. Flames spread on the grass to the gravel driveway and up the hill, charring the trunks of several trees and burning a few stumps and old, fallen trees. No living trees were toppled in the course of the fire or clean up.
Gabelein responded about 30 minutes after the initial call and used his backhoe to grab loose brush and expose root systems for the firefighters to douse.
“Actually, it burned out some brambles and blackberries, so it will be nice and lush next summer,” Palmer said.
The burn pile was started July 8, two days before Island County began a burn ban. There is no end date in place for the ban to be lifted. Stretches of dry weather turns once lush grass and vegetation on the island into easily combustible “flash” fuels. Enough dry grass together can mean a quick-burning, but far reaching fire on Whidbey, however.
“Based on my history, it’s not real dry here usually,” Palmer said. “We have so much undergrowth that cures and dies every year though.
“If you look at lawns here, they’re all brown.”
Higher temperatures and steady wind can keep embers burning from the burn piles and other fires, even legal ones during the county’s burn ban. Palmer recommended people check the condition of the area around approved fires, such as those in metal or concrete lined fire pits. Wood fire creates embers that can pop out of contained fire pits and onto dry grass or other materials that can ignite.
It is also important for people making a fire to have a way to extinguish it, even if it’s just a bucket of water. A fire is truly extinguished, Palmer said, when someone can touch the wood or ashes.