Forum: Research Questions

Discussing: Forest fires?

Forest fires?

Hello, have a wonderful story am working on that I would really like to end with a bang. (sorry cannot resist punning, it is Monday after all, and you'll see what I mean as I continue...)

I realise that at the level of civilisation we're talking in LOTR that forest fires probably just were left to burn out, or at best people chopped down trees and plowed firebreaks or some such, or prayed for rain perhaps?

Anyhow, read an interesting snippet about how firefighters in the 1800s used black powder explosions in fighting forest fires... but just that snippet. Have searched and searched for more, to no avail.

Well, they had black powder in ME, apparently, if that is what Saruman used to blow the wall/culvert/whatever-it-was at Helm's Deep--o and for Gandalf's fireworks, of course! I looked up the recipe for black powder and it is pretty simple.

Now if I could just figure out how to use it... Is there anybody out there who's a search wizard who could point me in the right direction? I'd like to know how much to use against an approaching fire, and how to disperse it and how to set it off... I thought this info might be easier to come by than it is...

Anyhow, I'll just make it up if I have to but hate doing that, someone knowledgeable is sure to come along and make me feel shorter than a hobbit's furry foot...

Lindelea

 

 

Re: Forest fires?

Greetings and howdy!

Black powder is pretty basic stuff, but one thing to keep in mind - Middle Earth didn't exactly have black powder - Wizards did. I don't know if Tolkien ever showed anyone BUT Saruman or Gandalf using the stuff. So if you wish to have someone in ME using explosives to fight a forest fire, you'd have to consider carefully how they came by a substance that hitherto only the Istari made or used.

As for HOW it's used, in a nutshell, black powder explodes when it is sealed into a confined space and ignited. If you pour black powder out on the open ground and light it, it will ignite with a big smokey WHOOSH but it will not explode or go bang. (I have done this personally.) But if you put it in a piece of pipe or other hard container, cap the ends tightly, and insert a fuse and light it, when the fuse burns down the combustion in that tight container creates your explosive force. Dynamite was simply black powder confined in a tight cardboard tube. When one shoots a black powder rifle, the powder goes down the barrel first, and the patch and lead ball goes down after it to create the seal needed for proper combustion, and the "fuse" is a flint or percussion cap at the back.

I think you'd have to go into sites on how to make pipe bombs and other such scary stuff, though, to learn any sort of precise amounts. (Keeping in mind that modern Smokeless gun powder is entirely different from Black Powder.) Dispersal I've already touched on: for an explosion, black powder must be tightly confined and then ignited, generally with a fuse. If you wish to burst rocks, your container of BP must be wedged INTO the rock. If you just lay it on top, all the explosive force blows up and out, and all you do is chip the rock. The firefighting you read about in the 1800's probably involved blasting rocks and also stuffing dynamite down holes so that the explosion blows bare dirt out, plowing the ground from within, so to speak. But simply pouring black powder out and lighting it will do little more than - perhaps - create a backfire, which I can think of less hazardous ways of achieving.

So, in short, your character(s) would have to possess or know how to make the equivalent of bombs, fireworks or dynamite, in order to use black powder for fire-fighting. And probably readers would want to know how they learned about that from Wizards. ;)

Hope this helps!
Cheers ~

Erin
*owner of two black powder rifles*

 

 

Re: Forest fires?

My goodness, Erin, such a wealth of information!

Well, I had already intimated that Gandalf had shared some information before going over the sea with someone in Gondor, for they had fireworks at their New Year's Celebration...

I had received some completely different info from someone who told me that they had created firebreaks with gunpowder by laying out a line of powder along the firebreak, running fuses to it along its length, and setting it off. Perhaps they were talking about setting a backfire? But this person did specifically mention making a fire break.

I am not too worried about hobbits having the knowledge of black powder; since they are a peaceable folk, they would probably use it for excavating in rocky areas... which is the explanation in the story I've been working on for their possession of the knowledge (saltpetre, sulfur and charcoal, a pretty simple formula, it is in the dictionary of all places!) but Men, on the other hand, now, that's worrisome!

What about the dwarves? Would they have used such stuff in their mining? Well, maybe not, from what Gimli said about the glittering caves.

Does it seem more plausible that King Aragorn might have shared the knowledge with hobbits (since he evidently already has it, as evidenced by the fireworks in Gondor) after consideration of their peaceable ways, or that a hobbit discovered the combination by accident? (LOL, and how was the stuff discovered in the first place IRL?)

 

 

Re: Forest fires? On second thought...

Was thinking about this while performing a mindless task and realized that the information I got about black powder from you and the other person was not necessarily contradictory.

Thinking back on my IM with the other... I had been making the same assumption that you had, that the powder would have been used explosively.

I got this impression from reading accounts of firefighters using black powder to blow firebreaks in the Great London Fire and a disastrous St. Louis fire (the latter in the 1800s). The account I read of the St. Louis fire contained a paragraph stating that the desperate city firefighters "used black powder to fight the fire, much as it was used in fighting forest fires at the time"... and from that nugget the story I'm working on was born. Sorry, I think I just mixed some metaphors...

Anyhow, whilst IMing with a friend I mentioned my frustration at being unable to find anything more on how black powder was used to fight forest fires... and found out that this friend had actually worked in forest firefighting out west.

I was assuming that the black powder was used explosively, as you so kindly explained above (didn't realize that it was the packing it into a confined space that made it explode, but figured that the black powder would have been packed into *something* since I knew so little about it), and innocently asked if the firefighters would use barrels or small kegs or smaller tubes or what... I got quite a chuckle from my friend, with a gentle admonition that we didn't want to *blow up* the forest, now did we? ...and then this friend proceeded to explain the process of laying out a line of powder and setting fuses along its length--needing more than one fuse because if one section went up it might blow out the other sections? I will have to look back at my notes, I am not remembering that part of the conversation.

In any event, my research on black powder now makes more sense. The stuff ignites quickly with a very hot flame and lots of white smoke. If you were setting a backfire or controlled burn, I suppose you would want a hot flame that was quickly over, and then deal with what the hot flame consumed, to make your firebreak (now the rest of the information this friend gave me, about scraping the ground and clearing out the leftover fuel while letting the backfire burn towards the wildfire, makes more sense...a little more sense... I still cannot get a clear picture in my head.).

O dear, I think I am getting muddled again. My thinking is fuzzy when it gets to what the firefighters do after they've set off the powder.

And I am still trying to figure the most plausible explanation for hobbits possessing black powder, or else this story is going to be missing the whole point...

Lindelea

 

 

Re: Forest fires? On second thought...

Hullo again Lindelea!

LOL, I hope I haven't merely contributed to confusion! I am personally familiar with black powder as it is used in shooting rifles and cannons, but only have anectdotal knowledge of how it was used in blasting, so there is always room for flaws in my ramblings.

You are correct in how black powder burns when flame is applied: fast, hot and very smoky. You do NOT want to be in its way when it goes, or you'll look like Cajun-cooked catfish. And given what your friend spoke of, I can see it used as a means of creating a fire-break or backfire. If it is laid out as you describe and fuses set along its length, certainly you can get a big hot WHOOSH that sort of instantly sizzles a path in the face of an oncoming fire. The several fuses would assure an even, controlled combustion rather than a sputtery sort of flare running along the ground.

As for what the firefighters do after the powder is set off, I think it would be pretty basic. First of course they stand back while it's ignited, and then they can go in with shovels, hoes, rakes and axes and whatever, and start clearing whatever is left. It's a lot of hard work but basically it's like mega-weed demolition, the idea to just create a strip of bare, unburnable earth between you and the wildfire that's coming at you. If they're using a backfire, that can be coaxed forward away from the firefighters and towards the wildfire, just by tossing dirt and clearing burnables behind it, so it can only go in the direction you want. Your fireline is (hopefully) far enough ahead of the wildfire that you have cleared and/or burned a nice, wide break before it gets there, where it fizzles out for lack of fuel.

Of course, fighting brush or grass fires is an entirely different pickle from battling forest fires ... Ask your friend about how scary it is when a fire "crowns-out," leaps into the tree tops and goes travelling - eeks! :-)

Oh, and the origins of gunpowder are generally attributed to the Chinese anywhere between about 600 and 1000 AD. They initially just used it as a noisy way to celebrate events or scare off evil spirits, thus the invention of fireworks. It wasn't until about the early 1300's that alchemists in England and Europe realised all that noise and smoke could actually propel a projectile, and thus were made the first crude cannons and later muskets. Interestingly, the percentages in which the ingredients (saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal) are mixed will greatly vary the quality and power of the black powder, as will the purity of the saltpeter and the type and quality of the charcoal. It all goes *bang* but in varying degrees.

Anyhow, my apologies if I'm blathering. My brother in-law is a retired firefighter who got his start in brush fires, so I used to love hearing his stories. Hope I was more help than confusion, and I wish you much luck with your story.
Cheers ~

Erin

 

 

Re: Forest fires? Another question for Erin...

So you've heard a lot about brush fires, eh?

*sigh* From what I'm hearing, I may end up with brush/grass fire...

I am very confused over the geography of the Green Hill country where Tookland is situated. Tolkien in his map of the Shire in FOTR shows it as bare hills, with forest land to the east... the Atlas of Middle Earth shows it as all forested, somehow.

I predicated this story on the Atlas, and had a forest fire nicely set up, and now don't know WHAT I'm going to do, unless I arbitrarily place a forest somewhere near Tuckborough. Ah, the travails of an author's life!

Got any words of wisdom?

Lindelea

 

 

Re: Forest fires? Another question for Erin...


Well, rats ....

My single-volume paperback LOTR doesn't have Tolkien's map of the Shire, so I can't look at it and ponder. Piffle. I'm afraid I won't be much help on Shire geography, as my only other map source is Fonstad's Atlas, same as you have.

LOL, and please don't let me paint myself as a brushfire expert, simply for having heard about them and (unhappily) seen a few. They are just one of nature's evils that we've had to live in awareness of, since I live out in rural northern Nevada. We had a dandy of a fire whoosh across 8,000 acres of pine trees and sage brush last July, and it turned back on itself only a mile from our house. We already had our pets evacuated and I was loading books and valuables in boxes. Another huge fire 15 miles south of us burned over 20,000 acres the month before. So I am no expert in fighting the things, but I sure know what they look and smell like!

Okay, on to thinking ... Maybe the Green Hills would be sort of like open grasslands and heath on the hilltops and hillsides, with thin lines of trees following down in the little valleys and ravines where the streams and springs are. The Shire is clearly well-watered, so even if there's not an actual forest in the Green Hills, there could certainly be ribbons of woods along the water courses .

What if you wrote a fire that starts off up in grassland and heath, but gets down into the ravines where the woody places are? That could be scary, especially if people had their homes down at the bottom of the hills, and there was danger of the fire coming down those woody ravines to them. Hill country is hard to fight fires in, simply because it makes the work twice as difficult. By the way, if you know someone who has actually fought fires, as you mentioned, DO talk to them and get their ideas, as they would know far better than me how fires work and what SORT of fire might fit the scenario you wish to write. But even a brush fire is a scary thing, especially if driven by the wind in dry seasons, as the flames can still be umpteen feet tall.

Hope I've been of some wee bit of help!
Cheers ~

Erin

 

 

Re: Forest fires? Another question for Erin...

Erin said, What if you wrote...

Nice description, Erin, thank you very much! I can almost visualise it, which is the first step to writing, for me...

You have been more than a wee bit of help! I am going to try to write the fire chapters this weekend, with fear and trepidation. Hopefully if I make any big boo-boo's someone will gently correct me and give me constructive criticism, such as saying, "You know, this is how it would actually work..." instead of "you got it all wrong!" LOL

Lin

 

 

Re: Forest fires?

Hello again! Have finished my fire story, heavily influenced by Erin's helpful comments. Would you mind stopping by, giving it a read, and letting me know if it sounds realistic? Thanks! Here's a link for your convenience:

Click here for FireStorm

 

 

Re: Forest fires?

How accurate to do you want to be?

I am a forester. One of our duties is firefighting (though this spring has been thankfully very wet). I've also been pretty well trained in wildland fire behavior and prescribed fire, and have had LOTS of experience.... LOL. I had some comments but don't want to burden you with anal details if you weren't going for that level of persnickityness...

Ariel

 

 

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