RAY BROOK - A forest fire scorched a roughly 2-acre swath of state Forest Preserve along a remote stretch of the railroad tracks between here and Lake Placid Thursday afternoon.
More than 70 firefighters from at least six departments and a half-dozen state forest rangers were called out to battle the blaze. An Adirondack Scenic Railroad train, prevented from making its scheduled run of tourists, played a key role in the fire response, delivering roughly 40 firefighters along with hoses, portable pumps, chainsaws and other equipment to the scene.
"We're just glad to help out," train engineer John Norton said.
Lake Placid firefighters Brady Hayes, left, and John Fagan use rakes to break up burning debris from a 2-acre forest fire Thursday along the railroad tracks between Lake Placid and Ray Brook.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Norton and conductor Damon Jacobs said they spotted two fires along the tracks sometime between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m., not long after the train left Lake Placid on one of its daily excursions to Saranac Lake. The first fire, which was smaller, was about a mile from the Old Military Road crossing in Lake Placid. The second, larger blaze was another mile up the tracks toward Ray Brook.
"We saw a lot of smoke, smoldering ground and flames," Jacobs said. "We radioed the (train) station in Lake Placid, and they contacted the fire department."
A small group of Lake Placid firefighters took the department's new four-wheeler up the tracks, first to the scene of the smaller fire. It was put out fairly quickly, and firefighters continued on to the site of the larger blaze, which they said was raging.
"The flames were 30 to 40 feet in the air, from the treetops to the treetops," said Lake Placid Fire Driver Matt Colby, one of the first to arrive.
The train returned to Lake Placid, picked up a half-dozen Lake Placid firefighters and brought them to the site of the blaze before continuing on to Saranac Lake.
Meanwhile, Saranac Lake firefighters were coming in from the west, followed shortly by the Wilmington and Bloomingdale fire departments. But it wasn't easy for them to get to the scene. The closest access was an unmarked trail that runs about half a mile from the south shoulder of state Route 86 to the railroad tracks. From there it was still another three-quarters of a mile east along the tracks to the scene of the blaze. Firefighters hiked in and also used ATVs and pickup trucks to get to the site.
By 4:30 p.m., the fire had consumed a roughly 150-yard stretch of forest along the north side of the railroad tracks. It ran anywhere from 10 to 20 yards into the woods. Smoke billowed out of the charred-black ground, and small lines of flames could still be seen in some areas. A state police helicopter circled overhead.
Using chainsaws and metal rakes, firefighters cut and dug a 10-foot-wide fire break around the teardrop-shaped blaze to prevent it from spreading farther into the woods. Their efforts were hampered at times by a stubborn breeze that fanned the flames from west to east, creating a large gray cloud of smoke that reduced visibility along the railroad tracks.
There was no water immediately available at the fire scene, so crews filled backpacks with water taken from large tanks on the back of the Wilmington and Bloomingdale fire departments' brush trucks and used it to douse hot spots. The Wilmington and Bloomingdale crews used hoses to connect to their water tanks to quench the fire.
Meanwhile, more firefighters from Saranac Lake and several other area departments, including Keene, Upper Jay and Paul Smiths-Gabriels, were on their way to the scene via the train. Damon Jacobs said they picked up about 20 firefighters at the crossing on state Route 86 just east of the village of Saranac Lake, and another dozen at the crossing near the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook.
By 5:15 p.m., a small stream had been located on the south side of the railroad tracks about a quarter-mile west of the blaze. The train arrived shortly thereafter, and 50-foot lengths of hose were dropped along the tracks from the back of the last passenger car. The hoses were connected to a portable pump that was set up at the stream. The pump worked intermittently, eventually conked out and had to be replaced. A second source of water closer to the fire scene was located later, and firefighters poured water onto the burned area.
"With the volunteers and the assistance of the rangers, we've got a line all the way around the fire," Lake Placid's head fire driver, Brad Jaques, said around 9:30 p.m. "It's contained. It's still burning within the containment area. They were able to establish a pretty good water source after a while down in there, so they really got some good water in there tonight."
Forest Ranger Lt. Charlie Platt said at least two crews of inmates from the state's Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility will be at the scene today to put out any hot spots.
As for the cause of the blaze, both Jaques and Platt said it's undetermined.
"It's hard to say what it would be," Platt said.
Given the remoteness of the site, some firefighters and forest rangers speculated privately that sparks from the train applying its brakes or a cigarette thrown from the train could have lit the fire.
But train personnel disputed that speculation. Norton said it's possible that sparks could have been created if the train was going 40 to 50 miles per hour and then hit the brakes, "but not at the speeds we go." Smoking is not permitted on the train, he added.
Regardless, firefighters said the train played an important role in the response to the fire, and not just in getting manpower and equipment to the scene, Jaques said.
"We used some of the cars as rehab cars that had air conditioning on them, and we were able to give the guys a place to get in out of the heat," he said. "It helped out." Aside from the added heat of the fire, temperatures were in the 80s Thursday.
Firefighters were out of the woods by 9:30 p.m. Many rode the train to Lake Placid, where the engine was put on the other end of the train, and were brought back to the crossings in Ray Brook and Saranac Lake where their vehicles were parked.
The AuSable Forks Volunteer Fire Department stood by at the Lake Placid fire station during the call. Tupper Lake firefighters manned Saranac Lake's station.
The fire broke out just hours after the state Department of Environmental Conservation declared a high fire danger due to the recent warm and dry weather.