By Emma Cotton/VTDigger and Brooke Geery
On the evening of Friday, Sept. 18, Killington Fire Department member Connor McGrath noticed smoke coming from the popular Deer Leap area of Sherburne Pass in Killington. Assuming it was people illegally camping, he took his dogs and hiked up to kick them out. After bushwhacking through the woods, he didn’t find anyone, but with a shift of the wind he was able to pinpoint an active fire and quickly moved to suppress it.
“If it wasn’t for Connor McGrath, it definitely would have spread quickly,” said Mark Fiore, Killington’s fire warden. “The wind would have taken it right up the hill.”
Connor McGrath also alerted his father, Murray McGrath, a Killington rescue squad member, who called in further reinforcements.
Fire departments from Killington, Pittsford and Bridgewater responded that night, and on Saturday the response grew to include fire trucks from Rutland Town, Rutland City, Chittenden, Proctor and others. These crews took turns carrying water up to the location as well as helping to dig a perimeter to stop further spread.
The fire is now under control and confined to a third of an acre, fire officials say. It burned less than an acre in total, officials estimated.
Because of the location, crews cannot use hoses, but instead must carry water a mile up the trail — five gallons at a time — in special backpacks.
The fire is classified as a ground fire, meaning that it is not in the trees but rather smoldering under the nearly foot-deep pile of dry leaves and debris covering the forest floor. It spreads more slowly than a treetop fire would, but requires extra effort to put out. Hot spots can flare up anywhere without warning.
At one point, as Murray McGrath was digging, a flame blew up about 5 feet in front of his face.
“That got my heart rate going,” he said.
Along with McGrath, firefighters dug trenches 1-foot deep and 3-feet wide around the area of the fire to removed the ultra-dry top layers of organic matter that burns most easily.
“It was tough working on it,” McGrath said. “We dug through the leaves and trees to get through the solid wood that wouldn’t burn. We went inside and started taking a lot of it down.”
McGrath said the fire had been burning for a day or two before it was recognized.
Darryl Smith wrote to the Mountain Times after reading an earlier article posted online: “I hiked up there on Tuesday, the 15th, and smelled wood smoke. I figured it was someone camping where they shouldn’t have, but the fire could have been smoldering since then,” he wrote.
New England’s dry summer has combined with higher-than-average temperatures to cause intense evaporation, according to state officials.
Vermont forests are full of organic matter — material that normally holds enough moisture to prevent fires from moving underground. But this year, conditions have been so dry, that same organic matter that normally stops fire has fueled it, said Kathy Decker, forest protection program manager at the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation. For this reason, the fire will likely continue to smolder all week as significant rain is not forecast until early next week at the earliest.
“The fire isn’t out, but it’s under control,” said Patty McGrath, co-owner of the Inn and Murray’s wife and Connor’s mother. “It will need to burn itself out because of the type of the fire it is. When you go up there up you don’t see the trees burning, you see the ground smoking.”
The Forest Service took command of the fire Saturday morning, and “federal resources will be staffing and working on the fire throughout the week,” wrote Ethan Ready, public affairs officer with the USDA Forest Service.
Forest Service officials say the fire was likely caused by a campfire left unattended.
“Without a full crime scene investigation, it is more than likely someone set a little fire, not realizing that they built it on top of leaves,” Murray McGrath added. “There was a couple rings of rocks and some beer bottles that got kicked around as we were trying to keep it from being a canopy fire.”
Despite the fire and the presence of the Forest Service on Monday, a group of six hiked up Deer Leap and set off fireworks in celebration of their recent wedding, before starting a small campfire. The group was caught and fined $100 for “littering.”
Forest Service and state officials encourage campers to check current conditions before building a fire, and never leave a fire unattended. Given the dry conditions, even experienced campers could make high-stakes errors.
“Usually you douse it down with water until it’s a little trickle of smoke, and then you walk away,” Decker said. “But you can’t walk away today”
Decker has heard of at least four ground fires in Vermont this summer, including one in the Northeast Kingdom and others to the south, including Killington and Springfield.
Fiore has responded to three small forest fires in Killington alone this summer, including another one that was caused by a campfire. In an average year, Fiore said, he sees maybe one small forest fire, if any.
Four is a lot of ground fires for a single summer, Decker said. “Regular looks like none,” she said. “This situation is not an every-year occurrence. There might be some localized areas that get this dry, but for the widespread area of Vermont to be this dry at this level is unusual.”
Katy Savage contributed to this report.