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A century of survival, 7 minutes of flames

The old cottonwood begins burning from the inside out.

Sun Advocate publisher

All Paul Martinez wanted to do on his property near East Carbon was burn a couple of small piles of branches and weeds. Little did he know that 150 years of growth from a dead cottonwood tree would change his afternoon profoundly.

That's because by the time the day had ended, a century-old cabin had gone up in flames and none of it was his fault. He could not have known that the roots from the old tree would catch fire under one of the small blazes, spread first to the old tree and then to the structure he had been planning to renovate.

"When I saw the glow in the tree it was almost Biblical," said Martinez on Monday. "I had no idea how it had caught fire."

Root fires are common in many forests around the country. A person may make a campfire far from a tree, but old roots, often dried out, under the fire can ignite. A number of forest fires over the years have been attributed to campers who had put out their fires properly, left the area and then hours later the fire pops up in a tree nearby.

Martinez had gone through all the right steps. He had called Carbon County dispatch and obtained a burning permit. He had created small heaps of leaves, branches and weeds so they wouldn't become huge flaming pyres. He had tools at the ready to put out any embers that might start a fire in the nearby area. He just didn't know about the root system.

The property that Martinez owns was originally part of one of the Whitmore settlements in the early days of the of the county. He figures the cabin was built in about 1910 by some people named Biggs who were living on the land then.

"The tree was probably at its maturity then and it was a good place to put the cabin because the tree provided shade," he stated. "But that old cottonwood died a long time ago."

The fires he started a good distance away from the tree worked their way along the old dead roots and then they continued onto the cabin, where a root apparently was beneath the wooden structure.

It took only seven minutes for the cabin to burst into flame and then burn to the ground.

"You see those kinds of fires mostly in forested areas," said Price Fire Chief Paul Bedont on Tuesday. "They happen a lot with aspens because their root system is all together. A group of those die and the roots die, too, and then a fire some distance away catches them."

Obviously old dead cottonwoods can be susceptible too.

Bedont said that sometimes in wildfires everything will appear to be out, but under the ground the root fires are still burning and fires start to pop up out of nowhere sometimes weeks afterward.

Martinez said the cabin was a piece of history and that he was going to put in a new floor and mud the cracks in between the logs to seal it up. Then he was going to fence it off so that his cattle wouldn't get around or into it.

"I feel really bad about what happened," he said.

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