Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Wildfire That Chased the Park Ranger - Part II

See the post below for Part I of this story -

Before leaving the last fire crew on the line I had enjoyed downing an entire bottle of Gatorade. Twenty miles north up the road my bladder started to ask to be emptied and emphatically, it said, “now.” I had still not seen any indication of a fire and I could not wait any longer, so I pulled into the Slacks Overlook at mile post 20 bailing out of my Chevy Blazer and shuffling quickly to the edge of the empty parking area. As I began to sense relief from the pressure I looked at the slope to my left and found that it was almost entirely in flames creeping slowly toward the top of Tory Ridge. The slope had been hidden from me as I traveled north and I would have driven right past it if I had not stopped to relieve myself. I quickly finished by business and radioed in the location of the fire and asked for assistance. Most fire crews were just going off shift and it was going to be quite some time before anyone could get to this location. I decided that the best help I could be at this point would be to size up the fire and get some idea of its size and direction of movement. This would allow for resources to get right to work when they arrived.

I did not have any fire tools with me since I had given the ones I had to others to replace broken shovels and council tools on other fires. So equipped with my personal protective gear and radio I climbed over the bank and then up the opposite slope through the black burned area toward the flames attempting to identify the head of the fire and what direction it was moving. I was scrambling over rocks and tree roots grabbing onto mountain laurel limbs to keep my balance climbing the steep slope chasing flames with a length of about three feet. My progress was slow so I stepped out of the black burned area and attempted to move around the very slow moving right flank of the fire.

Suddenly and without warning I felt the wind shift from directly up slope to directly toward me. The power of the wind increased changing the head of the fire from somewhere ahead of me to charging right toward my location. The flame lengths jumped through the mountain laurel to eight to ten feet high and I could feel the heat as the wall of fire started to move toward me. I experienced what many firefighters have seen and wondered if this fire was a living thing and it had purposely lured me into its clutches and was now going to devour me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Signing Scheduled for Staunton, Virginia

Bruce W. Bytnar, retired National Park Ranger and author of the book A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks, will be appearing in Staunton, Virgina on Saturday November 6.  Mr. Bytnar will be signing copies of his book and answering questions about National Parks and park rangering at Wilderness Adventure  outdoor store located at 50 Middlebrook Ave. between 1pm and 4pm.

Wilderness Adventure is now carrying A Park Ranger's Life at their retail store in Staunton.   For more information about this event and Wilderness Adventure's Fall Sale that will be occurring during this book event contact the store at 540 885-3200.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Wildfire That Chased the Park Ranger - Part I

The Piney Fire was started by a lightning strike and crowned through the ladder fuels on the top of the mountain on evening of October 19, 1991.  Within days it had expanded to over 1,500 acres and several other fires were burning in the region fueled by drought and the dropping of dry leaves as the fall season progressed.  Fire lines that were scraped by hand crews were cover over by new fallen fuels within hours.  Additional firefighters were assigned to patrol the lines with leaf blowers trying to keep the fuel break clear down to mineral soil.

Existing fires and conditions were increasing to such a level that a Type I National Incident Management Team was brought in to organize what had become a Wildfire Complex with multiple operations spread along the Blue Ridge Parkway, The George Washington, and Jefferson National Forests.

On October 23rd I had already worked at fourteen hour day helping to coordinate National Park Service resources assigned to the fires as part of the management team.  I had gone up to the Piney Fire to walk fire lines and visit with Park Service Crews to check on their well being.  Just after dark and I was finally on my way home for the night when there was a report of a new fire near the Wintergreen Resort thirty seven miles north of my location on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Since I was the closest asset with a vehicle I volunteered to head north and locate the fire site.

As I drove north in the dark I strained my eyes to see the mountain slopes ahead looking for the tell tale signs of a fire.  The challenge was to travel as fast as I could while still keeping my vehicle on the road and watching for the ever present deer that seemed to enjoy springing out into the path of objects moving at high velocity.

Watch for Part II later this week......
In my fire gear while on a fire in Oregon in 1989

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dry Conditions Produce Fire Threats In Western Virginia

We have been experiencing extreme dry conditions in the Western part of Virginia for a month. Fire officials are stating that this is the driest the woods have been since the mid 1950s. That is an incredible statement since during my career as a National Park Ranger I have experienced what were considered conditions thought to be the driest it could get. During the early 1990’s one fall saw so many fire starts in and around the Blue Ridge Parkway and George Washington National Forest that it was declared a “Wildfire Complex” with a Type I Incident Command Team placed in charge and firefighters brought in from all over the country. When bulldozers were used to improve existing forest service roads to serve as fire lines they could not dig deep enough into the soil to find any moisture.

These were conditions that were most often used to describe the more recognized vast western fires to come in Yellowstone in 1988. In the early 1970s when I started my first fire training the instructors and written literature stressed that large conflagrations where crowning or the ignition of standing trees’ foliage and lightning started fires only occurred in the western states. Eastern fires were described as slow moving flames that crept slowly through leaf litter carpet. This state of affairs would greatly change over the next twenty years.

Years of Eastern drought, increases in dried fuels covering the forest floor the result of damage from winter storms and pests, and the explosion of building homes in the woodland environment (what land management agencies call the Urban Interface) have all contributed to a changing environment for fire to start and spread. According to the US Forest Service between 1990 and 1998 21% of Wildland firefighter fatalities occurred in the Southeastern Region of the United States. This statistical tragedy serves as an indication of the increase in the severity of fire in the East.
In 1991 our fall fire season started with a report of a smoke and flames on the southeast side of Piney Mountain. The fire was started by a lighting strike on the mountain several days earlier. Shortly after nightfall the fire was crowning across the top of the mountain and heading at an alarming rate toward the Blue Ridge Parkway just north of the Otter Creek Campground.

Within a week there were three other major fires burning within a three county area and all adjacent to or near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fire fighting efforts were complicated by the fact that it was early in the season and leaves were still falling from trees and covering firelines within hours.

Even though I had experience fighting large wildland fires in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, and California, the closest I came to losing my life to fire was during the fall of 1992 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I will share more on that story later.

In the mean time, if you are enjoying the outdoors or live near the woods be extremely careful with any use of fire during this time of concern for fire starts.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Link to Blue Ridge Country Magazines On Line Blue Ridge Parkway Section

Blue Ridge Country Magazine  has an on line Blue Ridge Parkway Section.  There is a link for this on the links list to the right or you can go to the site by clicking on the title above.  There you will find an article by Elizabeth Hunter on poaching problems in the park and many other articles pertaining to protecting this national treasure during its 75th Anniversary. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Can You Find Below A Blue Ridge Parkway Overlook

Less than two weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th Anniversary featuring people who addressed the building of the roadway.  A 90 year old participant was R. Dillard Teer who in 1937 was a 17 year old sent to spend his summer working with a construction company building the Blue Ridge Parkway at Gillespie Gap in North Carolina.  One of Mr. Teer’s entertaining stories was of how it did not take the two foremen on the job long to determine that Teer did not have any skills that were of use to the project.  Consequently he became a “gopher” running a variety of errands one of which he described as driving truck loads of dynamite from Marion, North Carolina to the work site.

This story immediately brought back to mind an experience I had while working at Gillespie Gap in the mid 1980’s.  I was in our office located in the rear of the Minerals Museum when a young couple came to the front desk to report a minor deer vs. auto crash.  The husband, concerned about the condition of the injured animal, tracked the deer down the front of Bear Den Overlook at mile post 323.  His mission was abruptly stopped when he almost fell over what looked like a box of dynamite.

I followed them back to the spot running all kinds of scenarios through my mind.  This was prior to the fear generated by 9/11 and terrorism so I wondered if someone had stolen the dynamite from a local mining operation planning to commit some heinous crime.

As the couple with the crumpled bumper pointed the way I scrambled down the rock strewn face of the overlook to the tree line below.  The husband finally directed me to the spot and I found before me a wooden box without a lid and inside it appeared to be a least twenty neatly packed sticks of dynamite.  The box appeared to be quite old but intact.  The sticks also appeared aged, discolored, and covered with a foamy substance.  Now I remembered seeing in movies where old dynamite can sweat nitroglycerine and become very unstable.  Being in such a rural area there were no police agency or military explosives teams within hours.  Since there were a number of mines in the area I contacted one of them and they sent two of their explosives experts who worked with dynamite every day.

The two men who showed up in a pickup truck did not exude confidence on my part.  I decided to stay at the top of the overlook and do the directing to the spot this time.  One of the men called back that “Yea its dynamite, it looks old, and we can take it out.”

They then just picked up the box and carried it back up the steep rocky terrain to their truck where they dropped the box into the bed.  I nearly jumped out of my boots as the box banged against the metal.  Once I collected myself I questioned their technique and they informed me that the dynamite was safe unless a blasting cap was present and they could not find any around the box.  The mine had the facilities to safely dispose of the explosives, so they offered to take it.  The last I remember was the passenger waiving out of the window as the truck bounced away down the road.  I breathed a sigh of relief as the dynamite moved further and further away.

So as Mr. Teer spoke about hauling dynamite in 1937 I thought once again about where that dynamite might have come from.  As Teer was escorted from the stage I approached him and asked, “When you were working at Gillespie Gap did you ever misplace a box of dynamite?” 

His eyes lit up and he said, “What makes you ask that?”

I told the story of find the box at Bear Den Overlook.  Mr. Teer then asked if it was a wooden box and did it have the word “ATLAS” on it in large capital letters.  I informed him that he had described it to a tee.

“Oh yea, that was one of ours.  I would not be surprised if there are not a lot more of those boxes up there.  By the end of long hard work days the crews were not so great at bringing all their gear back up the steep slopes.”

So the mystery of the source of the dynamite was solved.  Now the question is how much more may be out there?

For a view of Bear Den Overlook go to:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Virginians Can Show Their Pride in the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway are attempting to get folks to sign up for a Blue Ridge Parkway state license plate.  Here are the details.

Virginia Parkway License Plate 
It's like purchasing an annual pass
for the privilege of driving the Parkway
Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway by mailing $25 and your application for this great Parkway plate to FRIENDS of the Blue Ridge Parkway today! After the Commonwealth takes its portion for administration,100% of the remaining proceeds will benefit the Parkway.
FRIENDS must receive 350 plate applications and payments to make this endeavor a reality. Don't delay... visit our website to print an application and mail it, with your $25 payment, to:  FRIENDS BRP, PO Box 20986, Roanoke VA 24018.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Flexible Creativity – A Park Ranger Skill

During my career as a National Park Ranger I had to learn to do without much in the way of budget that translated to equipment, supplies, and tools to do the job.  This constant condition shaped the ability to improvise and make do with you was at hand.  At times the use of psychological warfare techniques could be useful to deal with problems.

One summer day a visitor brought what they thought was a stray dog to the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  When I stopped by I was shown where the dog was tied to a rope leash in the back of the building.  I was informed that some visitors had picked the dog up along the road shoulder about five miles north of the Visitor Center.  The dog, which appeared to be a lab mix, was extremely friendly appearing to be well fed and in good condition.  I also knew that there were quite a few residences just out of sight from the area where the dog was picked up and that he was most likely a wondering family pet.

The dog enthusiastically jumped into the back seat of the car and I headed north to see if he could lead me to his home.  We stopped in the Rockfish Valley Overlook where there were four of five vehicles parked and visitors meandering around the grounds.  I let the dog out of the car in the hopes that he would sense where he was and head home.  The dog started to explore the overlook seeking odors around the litter can and where some people were sitting on the grass.  A young man approached me with a big smile and jokingly asked, “Is that a drug dog?’

A light bulb in my head seemed to go off as my playful and creative side kicked in and I answered, “Yea, we just got him back from training and are trying to get him oriented to the area.”
“Oh,” was the answer I got back as the man’s face turned a bit white and his jaw dropped.  He quickly skipped back to his group of friends and they hurriedly packed up their blanket, jumped into a car, and sped off.
I found this response interesting and the dog was still hanging around in the overlook, so I loaded him back into the car and moved on to the Afton Mountain Overlook.  Six or more cars were parked here with about dozen young adults sitting on the grass bank of the overlook smoking and talking while others were listening to music.  All eyes turned toward me as I pulled up in my marked patrol car and opened the back door releasing the dog.  My new partner started his same routine starting to sniff around the grounds working his way toward the crowd.  I stepped toward them and announced so all could hear, “Don’t worry.  This is our new drug dog and we are just trying to get him used to the area.  He is really friendly.”

I do not think I have ever seen people get up off the ground as quickly as almost everyone gathered up their belongings, got into their cars, and moved out with urgency that was obvious.

The dog circled the overlook several more times and then crossed the road heading up a well worn but unofficial trail.  I assumed he wanted to get home before dinner time.

I never did see the same dog again.  But about a month later a local law enforcement agency called me at my office.  They had heard that we had a drug dog and wanted to know if they could make use of his services.  I was amazed how the story of the dog had spread through the community.  I did have to humbly explain that we did not have a trained drug detector.  The agency representative did not seem to see the humor in the situation. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"A Park Ranger's Life" In Buena Vista, Virginia

On Friday September 17 retired National Park Ranger and author Bruce W. Bytnar will be in Buena Vista, Virginia to sign copies of his book A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.  Mr. Bytnar will be in town for their "Art on the Avenue" Event.  Artists representing a variety of medias will located in and around businesses along Magnolia Avenue in the center of town from 5pm to 8pm.  There will also be music and all is free to the public.

For more information on this fun event, go to:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Local Agency Park Ranger Foils Terrorists in West Memphis

Two suspected right wing terrorists who murdered two police officers during a traffic stop earlier in the day had their escape stopped by a fast thinking and courageous park ranger. When he came on the scene two more officers were seriously wounded and his actions saved their lives.

"A Park Ranger's Life" Upcoming Book Events

If you are in the area, I look forward to seeing you at one of these events:

September 17  Buena Vista Art Walk 3pm Buena Vista, Va

October 9          Ram's Head Book Shop Roanoke, Va 1pm

October 15        Peaks Of Otter Lodge, Virginia 5pm

November 16   Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club Annual Meeting, Richmond, Va

November 19   Meet the Author, Holiday Inn University Area,   Emmett St., Charlottesville,     

November 26   Books and Company, Lexington, Va 12pm

December 4     Tanglewood Barnes and Noble, Roanoke, Va 1pm

Blue Ridge Parkway 75th Anniversary Celebration

September 10th and 11th I had the pleasure of attending the festivities to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of The Blue Ridge Parkway. A wide array of events, ranger lead family activities, educational opportunities for school groups, displays, celebrations, music, and speeches were scheduled over a three day period.

This complex event was extremely well planned and managed by a National Park Service Incident Command Team made up of employees from the Blue Ridge Parkway. They had the daunting task of coordinating numerous partners, special guests, and volunteers who participated and conducted programs. Everything from shuttle buses to bathrooms and food services were available to make the public’s access to venues at the Blue Ridge Mountain Music Center and Cumberland Knob smooth and efficient.

Some of my personal highlights from the weekend included:

It was a pleasure spending time visiting and swapping stories with Dean Richardson who was a park ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway from 1948 until his retirement as the Bluffs District Ranger in 1984. Dean was my first supervisor on the Blue Ridge Parkway from 1981 to 1984 and taught me the ropes of how to be the best ranger I could be. His wealth of knowledge and experience on the history of rangering is unsurpassed and endearing.

I was able to rekindle my friendship with Dr. Harley Jolley and present him with a signed copy of my book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks. Dr. Jolley is a renowned historian of The Blue Ridge Parkway, Pearl Harbor survivor, CCC enrollee, former park ranger, college professor, and author. It is always a pleasure to spend time with Harley Jolley.
Dr. Harley Jolley with the official Commemorative Plaque for the 75th Anniversary

On one of the panel discussions that were open to the public I had the pleasure of hearing some of the remembrances of R. Dillard Teer who in 1937 at the age of 17 worked on the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Gillespie Gap area. Mr. Teer was the son of one of the owners of a construction company that first started work to build the Parkway. He was extremely entertaining, humorous, and full of information about the challenges of building a roadway through the mountain terrain of the Southern Appalachians with the technology of the 1930s.

Carlton Abbott, the son of Stanley Abbott the first Superintendent and main designer of the Blue Ridge Parkway, gave a fascinating presentation on the origins of the parkway concept and tales of growing up with his Dad. During his entertaining and well organized presentation I learned many new facts about the early days of what would become the park I eventually worked in for 27 years.

Even though this weekend was a celebration commemorating the Blue Ridge Parkway the tragic events of 9/11/2001 were not forgotten. On Saturday morning the day’s events were commenced by a Remembrance of those who lost their lives during this tragic attack on our way of life. The very moving featured speaker at this ceremony was the Reverend Dan Matthews, Rector Emeritus of Trinity Church in Manhattan, New York. His personal recounting of that morning’s events stirred the audience to their core and tugged at their hearts.
Reverend Dan Matthews addresses the audience during the 9/11 Remembrance

It was a pleasure to spend time visiting with many of the park rangers that I worked with during my career. Their hard work and dedication to duty are what made this memorable event happen in its organized and efficient manner. We should all be pleased that these individuals are still out there protecting and preserving our National Parks.
Park Rangers who worked at the 75th Anniversary Celebration
Here are some other scenes from the weekend:
National Park Service Ranger Honor Guard

Crowd at the 75th Anniversary Ceremony

One of the antique Tin Can Tourist exhibits of camper in the 1940s

Community Tent at the Blue Ridge Music Center

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Blue Ridge Parkway Turns 75

Three days of celebrations to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway start today at the Blue Ridge Music Center and Cumberland Knob located just north and south of the state line between Virginia and North Carolina.

For listing of the planned events go to;

I hope to see you there.

Historic National Park Brochure Covers

The National Park Service is now making a selection of historic covers of park brochures available for viewing on line.  They date from a Crater Lake brochure from 1913 to the 1970s when standardized printing became policy.  You can view the covers and search for your favorite parks at:

Here are a few of my favorites.



So dig some of those old brochures saved in the attic from family vacations past and see if they are part of the online collection.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Reader's Review for "A Park Ranger's Life"

Below is a review written on Amazon.Com by another satisfied reader of A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.

5.0 out of 5 stars32 years of adventures written from the heart, September 7, 2010

This book traces Ranger Bytnar's career from start to finish in a book I didn't want to end. As a law enforcement ranger Bytnar faced down armed felons as well as dealt with an overly enthusiastic and determined bear, not to mention careless tourists, lost hikers, injured motorists, ghosts, and park service management that doesn't always support their rangers in the field. 

Bytnar's adventures give strong credence to his love of the National Park Service, its resources, and the educating of the public which must be done in order to assure future generations healthy park lands. 

Read Ranger Bytnar's stories and follow along as if beside him on the trails, or in the patrol car; this is a wonderful read of the true life challenges that rangers today face.

Bicycling Safely On The Blue Ridge Parkway

As temperatures begin to cool a bit, more and more people are planning bicycling day trips and tours on the Blue Ridge Parkway and other National Park areas across the country.  Here are some simple rules that will help make your trip a safe one.

·         Wear a bicycle helmet

·         Be sure your bicycle is in good operating condition.

.          Carry a spare tube and tools for minor repairs.

·         Wear high visibility clothing.  It sets you apart from the scenery and more visible to motorists.

·         Carry a cellular phone to report emergencies but remain aware that there are many dead spots with no cell coverage in many National Park areas.  You may need to change locations to make a call.

·         Avoid riding during periods of low visibility.  Fog and rain may occur unpredictably.  Reschedule your trip or allow time for flexibility to ride during periods of better weather conditions.

·         Use caution when riding through tunnels.  There are 26 tunnels in North Carolina and 1 tunnel in Virginia.  It is recommended that you have an illuminated light on the front of your bike and light or reflectors on the rear.
·         Temperatures vary greatly with elevation and aspect changes in mountainous areas.

      Wear clothing in layers.  Hypothermia can be deadly, so take precautions to prevent it.

·         Safe drinking water is available on a seasonal basis at park facilities.  Many parks will winterize water lines and systems by the end of October.  Be sure to check on what facilities are open and bring adequate water with you.  Do not drink unpurified water from streams and springs within even the most pristine park areas.  There are no areas within the United States now free from bacteria that will wreak havoc with your digestive system.

·         Make an honest evaluation of your abilities before beginning a bicycle trip.  Do your research and determine what elevation changes you will be challenged by.  As an example you can find such information for the Blue Ridge Parkway at:

·         When cycling with a group, adjust your spacing to be single file and allow for motor vehicles to pass safely.

If driving a motor vehicle rather than pedaling a bicycle, be alert for cyclists and be sure to

Although most roadways through National Park areas do not allow commercial vehicles and large trucks you will still encounter tour buses, motor homes, and vehicles pulling trailers.  Be alert for such traffic and always assume that a possible hazard may be around each blind curve.