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Kentucky Color: Summer of 1986

Brutal summer heat and dry conditions lead to a challenging firefighting season for Billy Joe Fudge and Pee Wee Sinclair in the summer of '86.

By Billy Joe Fudge

I had been working as a Forest Ranger for the Kentucky Division of Forestry some 14 years when the summer of 1986 rolled around. It was particularly dry in South Central Kentucky during that spring. Then, in June, many areas had less than 4 inches of rainfall followed by just over 1 inch of rainfall in July. There were 18 days of temperatures over 90, and another 5 days of 100 and above.

As a wild land firefighter, I understood that in Kentucky our forest fire seasons were in spring and fall when the leaves were off the trees, allowing sunlight, wind and heat to dry the fuels on the forest floor. However, I had made several trips out west to the high desert and mountain ecosystem areas to help in their fire suppression efforts, and was keenly aware of the dangers that heat and drought caused those folks.

Those areas receive very little rainfall in the late spring, summer and early fall seasons. Most of the precipitation they receive comes in the form of rain and snow during the late fall, winter and early spring seasons. Similarly, the desert areas of the southwest receive most of their rainfall during these three seasons also. For instance, most areas of Southern California have received an average of less than 12 inches of rainfall a year since 1944. Around 90% of that falls during the 6+ months of the winter rainy season leaving only around 10% (less than 2 inches) of rainfall during the 5+ months of the summer dry season.

As a matter of fact, many of the wildfires out west are started by what is known as dry thunderstorms. The term, dry thunderstorms, does not necessarily mean that there is no rain at all but the rain is so light that it does not wet the parched earth sufficiently to prevent fires. Lightning sets the dry trees, brush or grass on fire and, with those fuels being super dry, a few rain drops have no effect on the fires at all.

Historically, for us here in South Central Kentucky, dry thunderstorms, if they happened at all, were few and far between.

I began my firefighting career in 1972, and we had a few old dead trees on top of ridges that would be struck by lightning, but fuel moistures and soil moistures would be sufficiently high to prevent those becoming wildfires.

But then, in the summer of 1986, everything changed! It was so dry and hot that huge boulders and underground rock formations had no moisture in the soil atop them. They had remained undiscovered for generations until the grass and brush growing above them turned brown and died. Most lawns needed no mowing for weeks. The water table dropped to modern historic depths. Consequently, in most areas all but the heartiest of springs on South and West facing slopes ceased to run, while many springs on North and East facing slopes slowed to trickles.

A couple of weeks into July, we began to have very small but intense thunderstorms. This weather trend continued up into September. A thunderstorm maybe only a half mile across would run lightning to the ground in and around the storm. Since we were experiencing what I called the doldrums, we had little to no wind. Therefore, the little storms would fire up, create much electrical activity and fizzle out in a short period of time.

Immediately we began to get reports from local residents who were smelling smoke or seeing smoke coming out of the woods and at night maybe even seeing fire flickering in the woods. The leaves were still on the trees, which made it very difficult to find the source of the smoke. The fires were not very intense, and were not spreading very fast, but were very difficult to contain and ultimately control.

Additionally, our fire suppression efforts were hampered by two very complicating factors; the torturous, debilitating 100 degree temperatures, and nasty, thick, heavy with particulate matter, life-threatening smoke trapped beneath the forest canopy.

I remember A. L. "Pee Wee" Sinclair and me being dispatched to a small fire just off Cherry Tree Ridge Road in Cumberland County. Cherry Tree Ridge Road runs just about a mile north of the Kentucky/Tennessee line, connecting Hwy 61 and Salvation Army Road.

The fire was only about 2 acres in size, and spreading slowly around its entire circumference. We had already contained a forest fire in Adair County that morning, and were already running on empty when we arrived at the fire. Pee Wee and I started digging a line around the fire and both had to walk several feet away pretty often to recover from all the smoke we were inhaling, and from dehydration.

After an hour or so, I noticed that Pee Wee was turning mighty pale, so to speak. I asked if he was sick and he shook his head yes. I told him to go to the truck and I would finish. He was worried that I would have to finish alone and did not want to leave me. I told him that I could finish the line by myself easier than I could drag him to the truck should he pass out. So, he relented and headed to the truck.

A couple of hours later, I finally contained the fire by completely removing anything that would burn from a two feet wide line all the way around the fire. I was really light headed and weak but finally made it to the truck. Pee Wee and I both were out of water so we headed down the hill to the Salvation Army Camp to get a drink and fill our canteens. I don't know how much I drank but it was enough that my stomach was full but I was still thirsty. It seemed that I was still getting weaker but I knew not why.

After lying atop picnic tables in the hot shade of the pavilion, I suddenly remembered that the wife of one of our seasonal employees was the camp nurse, and we set out to find her office. I will tell you that the air conditioned room really helped but I told her I was still weak and thirsty. She gave me a couple of salt and potassium tablets and a drink of water to swallow them with, and almost immediately, it felt as if I could feel the water running through my system. From that time forward, I always carried salt and potassium tablets with me.

I could tell many stories of fire suppression during that time but I will share this last one of note with you.

For two days, Pee Wee and I had looked for a fire in the Salt Lick Bend area of Cumberland County. We could smell smoke from two different roads, and after finally honing in on the area it was in, I turned off Salt Lick Road onto a grass trail crossing a narrow, grown up, Johnson's Grass bottom. As soon as all four wheels of my truck were off the highway, a large cat leaped from the grass running toward me and immediately turned broadside crossing the grassy road and into the tall grass on the other side. It had the classic, long and thick Cougar tail curled up on the end. Just guessing, I would say its tail was at least two and half feet long.

I've seen many Bobcats over the years, both living and dead, and this was no Bobcat. From seeing Bobcats weighed over the years, I would suspect that the Cougar was in the forty pound range. However, I am quite the novice when it comes to estimating the weight of Cougars!

I looked at Pee Wee and Pee Wee looked at me. After a long silence, I said, "What did you think about that cat?!"

Pee Wee said, "What cat?"

After a short hesitation he said, "Nobody will believe it, so I didn't see anything."

This story was posted on 2023-08-26 10:45:30
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