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Burning the Ditch

Burning the Ditch

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I walk double time through a year’s worth of accumulated tumbleweeds. A bottle of propane—the squat, white kind you see next to barbeques—drags my left hand down. At the end of a rubber hose and three feet of steel, the torch is whooshing, kicking out a gas flame too pale to see in the afternoon light. Pointing it backwards with my right hand, I swivel the torch in time with my steps. I make sure to lick the flame beneath the dry grass that overhangs the ditch banks. I fire each side in turn, trying to be thorough.

Looking over my shoulder I can see flames boiling up where the torch has been. They catch fast and burn faster, exploding upward with a rush that hoists still-flaming stalks and embers towards the blue sky. The fires expand like gasoline dripped on water.

Ten feet behind the business end of the torch, the ditch is completely obscured. Spot fires combine into a wall of smoke and flame that keeps pace with my awkward, hurried stride.

The ditch banks are chest-high. Ahead the dirt, grass and the sky lay stacked like pancakes. Looking back is like opening an oven door. There are only two sounds, the jet engine roar of the torch and the crackle of forage turning black. My impulse is to run, but I am setting this fire. There is no getting far away.

The ditch is punctuated by culverts. They are too small to go through so I lift the propane tank as high as I can on the bank, settle it in the soil, and climb. Getting out means stumbling, and I worry that the torch will swing around and burn the hose that feeds it.

I catch my breath on top of the first culvert. A breeze blows out of the southwest, crossing my skin like ice. I am surprised to find my shirt sweated through. Looking south I can see the ditch curving for a mile towards the Clark Fork River, smoking all the way.

To the north, the unburned ditch winds through high green grass. It dives under fences, crossing two ranches before reaching the south edge of our property.

The Helen Johnson Ditch is an old scratch in the ground, dug before the Johnson place was split into the medium-sized tracts of land we ranch on today. It is the highest point of diversion on the Clark Fork River, and one of the oldest. On the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch we claim about 42 cubic feet per second of Clark Fork water during the irrigating season. Our water rights have a variety of dates, ranging from 1962 back to 1875. According to DNRC records, our 1875 claim is the most senior one on the main stem of the Clark Fork between Warm Springs and the Milltown reservoir.

Holding a 133 year old water right means that we get first crack at the Clark Fork and everything in it. When the time comes we’ll open the head gate and nab a fraction of the river’s flow. Water will run down this fresh-burned ditch, scouring out ashes. At the ranch we’ll turn it into smaller ditches and back it up with plastic tarp dams. The water will pool back against itself and rise. When high enough it will pour out through taps, little notches cut into the top of the ditch bank, to soak the roots of alfalfa and grass.

Flood irrigation is an old way to get plants wet. It isn’t terribly efficient—pipes, pivots and sprinklers can grow the same crop with less water—but there is something deeply satisfying about the process. Perhaps it is the simplicity, the fact that a shovel, a pole, a tarp and some stones are the height of appropriate technology. Perhaps it is the fact that these simple things, arranged correctly, can direct thousands of gallons of water. Maybe the feeling comes from being surrounded by such a leafy bonanza of growth. Maybe it’s just the gurgle of water through grass.

Enough daydreaming: The fire is here. Flames lick the end of the culvert. The torch hisses at them. I take two sliding steps into the bottom of the ditch, switch the propane to my right hand and the torch to my left and start walking. I swing the torch from side to side and when I look back it seems like my tracks are burning.

Week 4

“On Rivers and Ranching” is a blog by a ranch hand working on the Clark Fork Coalition’s Cottonwood Creek Ranch to unite conservation and ranching practices in the middle of the nation’s largest Superfund complex — the upper Clark Fork River. Click here for more.

About Bryce Andrews

Comments

  1. paddyo' says:

    That’s one hell of a nicely written glimpse into a job the rest of us never notice except for the smoke. Thanks for the good read.

  2. Rose Mary says:

    Unfortunately, “the rest of us” DO notice burns of this nature and other similar man-made fires professed to have been started for what someone considered to be a valid purpose.

    Words such as “… flames boiling up where the torch has been. They catch fast and burn faster, exploding upward with a rush that hoists still-flaming stalks and embers towards the blue sky. The fires expand like gasoline dripped on water.” is a DEADLY message to many. Me included.

    In Colorado alone hundreds-of-thousands of acres have gone up in flames thanks to the indiscriminate misuse of fire by man.

    In Ordway, Colorado, three people died, including two firemen who were trying to contain their dastardly deeds that burned at least 11 square miles and led to the evacuation of more than 1000 residents.

    “Accidents happen” has a hollow ring to these families ~ and many others who have been the victims.

    You are lucky, Bryce, to not have been one of them.

    It is traumatic enough to watch land burn and lives destroyed by naturally-caused fires without knowing just how many are caused by man.

    Obviously, I fail to see the glamour of either the deed or this article glorifying it.

    Hopefully all your readers will NOT follow in your footsteps.

  3. jon says:

    you are kidding me right…..

    I just wish I owned the oldest water rights on any river…..

    I ask…..would you rahter him not clear out his irrigation ditch that sends the water to the crops that may end up on YOUR table….

    did you really read the story….

  4. Rose Mary says:

    No, Jon, I’m not kidding anyone; and, yes I did really read the story.

    As I said before, words such as “… flames boiling up where the torch has been. They catch fast and burn faster, exploding upward with a rush that hoists still-flaming stalks and embers towards the blue sky. The fires expand like gasoline dripped on water” is a well-written but DEADLY message.

    I am also fortunate enough to own the oldest water rights in my neck of the woods and am the custodian of them together with the ditches and structures that carry and divert that water to its intended location for its intended purpose.

    I was also unfortunate enough to have only a two lane road that separated me and everything I own ~ including the living creatures that occupy it ~ from a fire only a couple months ago that ravished well over 9000 acres of land and was the cause of killing one person fighting that fire. That man died right outside my fence.

    You are extremely naive if you actually believe that fire is the only way to clean or maintain an irrigation ditch.

    And I have NO idea how anyone throughout the Nation who reads any newspaper or turns on the TV for a half-hour a day could NOT know how many fires are raging throughout this Nation RIGHT NOW or how many of them have been caused by mankind, with or without the intent to do so.

    ALL open flames and even controlled burns with the fire fighters in attendance are strictly forbidden throughout many areas of the West.

    Perhaps a visit to your local fire department to talk to the fire fighters who risk their lives every day to put these fires out … or attendance at a funeral for one of them that died trying … might leave you with a more realistic perspective.

  5. paddyo' says:

    Whoa, Rose Mary, careful with those words: “indiscriminate use,” for instance.
    Yes, April’s brushfire in Ordway was an awful, terrible tragedy. It also was the result of a carelessly extinguished trash fire that came back to life — on a very windy day.
    Contrast that with “Burning the Ditch.” Not all fires are bad. Not all fire is indiscriminately set. This writer painted a poetic picture of a long-running way of managing ditches and lands in a far wetter (most of the time, anyway) place than Colorado’s southeastern Plains.
    There is no one-size-fits-all in this discussion. Fire is a powerful force, both helpful and destructive. It all depends on the circumstances. Yes, a “controlled burn” in New Mexico turned into the Los Alamos tragedy eight years ago. But where “Burning the Ditch” is based, this is a normal part of life, even a ritual.
    Perhaps that will change. Air quality is always a concern. But I’d back off the blanket condemnation. I’m sorry for your community’s losses, but try to consider the context next time.

  6. Rose Mary says:

    Yes, “paddyo’ “, fire IS a powerful force, both helpful and destructive.

    To use a weapon of mass destruction for an unnecessary purpose is irresponsible. A poetic picture of a long-running way of doing anything does not make it either necessary or wise.

    I’m sure there are a whole big bunch of firefighters who WISH wildfires would never occur in what you refer to as ” lands in … wetter (most of the time, anyway) place(s) …”. My land is located in one such place. I do not live in Ordway. But there are many people who do, three who used to, and many who are now homeless.

    There is also no mention in this article that this fire was extinguished by the person who set it, carelessly or otherwise. Quite the contrary: “I swing the torch from side to side and when I look back it seems like my tracks are burning.” Any brush or grass fire can easily reignite without warning. To believe otherwise is both dangerous and naive.

    Believe and/or back off of whatever you’d like to, “paddyo’ “, but rest assured that I did consider the context before I posted my comments.

    This is a beautifully written article. It is also one that can and will be romanticized by a reader who very well might be the next one to set the next 200,000 acre wildfire mimicking the act.

    As I previously stated, “You are extremely naive if you actually believe that fire is the only way to clean or maintain an irrigation ditch.”

    If you want to maintain a “ritual” challenge someone to a duel.

    That way there will only be one dead body to bury and both families will still have a roof over their heads.

  7. nazoosh says:

    …so is it really necessary to add “please don’t try this at home’ clause when one writes about common ranch maintenance? Or shall we just rant because it was not stated. Nobody likes or promotes destructive fires – we all know that – and we should all work to prevent it (but that is not what this article is about).

    Perhaps we should give the benefit of the doubt to this fella who clearly knows what he is doing. jheez

  8. Rose Mary says:

    Obviously you have not read Bryce’s previous articles, “nazoosh”.

    Had you done so you would have noticed the following comments that he wrote in his previous articles ~ which might lead you to question your own comment saying he “..clearly knows what he is doing”:

    “But the first step is to put boots on the ground. Those boots are mine this summer …”

    “Coming to work from the little house I rent outside of Deer Lodge …”

    “Although I haven’t been here long …”

    “… nobody lives on the place … certain less-than-desirable land uses have taken root like weeds on a patch of bare dirt.” (among others mentioned, none that would seem to insulate this property from wildfire)

    ” … during the school year, vents his frustration on cats, squirrels and neighbor dogs.” (referencing his dog, Tick)

    The Good News is that I am sure Bryce is a fine young man and a good writer and making A Contribution to the best of his knowledge and ability … AND, since his good-dog-Tick is a heeler I can guarantee Tick is in the element that suits him best!!!

  9. Jim Lang says:

    I prescribe a chill pill.

  10. Horst Wagner says:

    Sounds to me like a case of a person so concerned with accident she would hesitate to drive because of the explosive ingredients in each cylinder…

  11. Rose Mary says:

    Please send your chill pill to FEMA or the Red Cross, Jim Lang. Sounds like you’ve already taken one and they work wonders.

    And, yep … Horst Wagner … it IS people who think that way who have set the nation on fire … year after year after year.

    Perhaps a visit to YOUR local fire department to talk to the fire fighters who risk their lives every day to put these fires out … or attendance at a funeral for one of them that died trying … might leave YOU with a more realistic perspective.

  12. RCM says:

    On a lighter note and to respond to a common misconception about irrigation. The article states that converting from flood irrigation to sprinklers would use less water. That’s true in the sense of the amount of water diverted from the river during the irrigation season, but in terms of the longer-term water budget, sprinkler irrigation almost always increases the amount of water that is consumed or lost to the river in any given water year. Think about it, most people convert from flood to sprinkler in order to increase crop yields or reduce labor costs. If you increase yields, it’s because the plants are consuming more water. A lot of water used in flood irrigation returns to the rivers or streams or shallow aquifers later in the year. Hydrologically, conversions from flood to sprinklers is probably reducing streamflows in fall and winter and year-round total volume, compared to when the ground was flood irrigated. Sometimes one person’s increased “efficiency” can have adverse effects on other water users. We need to start thinking about water use efficiency from a broader perspective, and realize that “inefficient” flood irrigation at the top of the basin often has a lot of accidental aquifer storage-type benefits down the stream, and the individual economic incentives created to replace these systems may not be serving broader public water use needs.

  13. Susan Duncan says:

    We burn off our ditch too, but in April. Since we only have 76 acres, we are burning off about 1/2 mile from our place down through the neighbor’s 100 acres to a 2 lane road with houses on the opposite side. Our ditch is only about 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Both ssides of the ditch are cultivated (summer fallow after grain or green alfalfa) so there isn’t much chance of spread. But we take the truck with a small battery operated spray
    tank full of water and a shovel and McCloud (a fire fighting tool like a large rake/hoe combination.) We both worked for the Forest Service and BLM and have had firefighting training in school as well as practical work experience.

    Our winds come from the southwest and the ditch runs north/south. We start about 10AM after the dew is off and afternoon winds have not picked up. My husband goes to the start point (on the north end) and sprays water to set a barrier, then ignites the dead grass south of the barrier to burn backwards against the wind. He watches it advance and checks that it doesn’t spread beyond where he wants it to go. Stomping and spraying to snuff out edges that are going too far.

    I go further south to our south boundary fence and start fires (with matches) at about 30 foot intervals moving north, pausing to see that each 30 foot interval burns out before going on to light more. As I burn back (with the wind) toward my husband’s fire burning against the wind we keep the flames in check, even if the winds switch direction.

    Then my husband goes down to the culvert near the road at the far south end and back fires north and I start fires at 30 foot intervals with the wind going south to the culvert. The last part from the culvert to the road is tricky. The ditch parallels the road and is across from housing. So we usually have an audience for our activities. We try to keep the smoke down and burn it out in the shortest time possible to avoid provoking the neighbors.

    With the sprayer my husband wets down the fence posts and establishes a secure endpoint with water and digging out dirt if necessary. We don’t leave ’til its out. We are usually done by 1:30 or 3PM before strong afternoon winds pick up. Well, that’s how we do it in the Gallatin Valley in southwest Montana.

  14. Rose Mary says:

    There ya go, “nazoosh” ~ and other perpetual skeptics regarding the RISK of burning ditches as it has been glamorized in this article.

    If you actually even WANT to know exactly how people ” … who clearly (know) what (they) are doing ..” accomplish such a task IN A SAFE AND SANE MANNER please read those comments posted above by Susan Duncan.

    Please do not overlook the fire preventative measures they take and/or their hands-on qualifications, including but not exclusive to: ” … we take the truck with a small battery operated spray tank full of water and a shovel and McCloud (a fire fighting tool like a large rake/hoe combination.) We both worked for the Forest Service and BLM and have had firefighting training in school as well as practical work experience.”

    Thank you, Susan, for posting your comments ~ all detailed need-to-know information by all who read this article!