River Forest firefighters were dispatched five times in two weeks to put out small wildfires in Thatcher Woods. The fires, the latest of which happened June 5, are believed to have been caused by discarded, not fully extinguished cigars or cigarettes. The drought conditions led to flames.

“People walk into the woods, accidentally thinking they stamped out a cigarette or whatever, but they didn’t and then the breeze that we were getting was carrying the embers around,” said River Forest Fire Chief Thomas Gaertner. “And everything was so brutally dry that it would start these small little spot fires throughout Thatcher Woods.”

Spot fires, as Gaertner explained, are small wildfire blazes ignited by windborne embers dropped on dry brush and leaves. No living trees were set aflame, just parched vegetation.

“Small dead branches and leaves and the grass were all so dry that the slightest little ember would get them burning and smoldering in a lot of places,” the chief said.

 These firebrands can be carried by the wind miles away from their original source and the unpredictability of wind patterns makes spotting difficult for wildfire management.

 The Thatcher Woods wildfires, which have all been snuffed, are not nearly on the same scale as those currently blazing across Canada, the smoke from which engulfed the Chicago area this week in a hazy smog of smoky air, unhealthy for breathing.

Gaertner does not believe the local mini-infernos contributed to the poor air quality, nor did they cause any injuries or property damage, but uncontrolled fire is still dangerous. This should be kept in mind when enjoying the woods, according to the chief. It is also illegal to start any kind of fire in Thatcher Woods.

“People need to be more vigilant and aware,” he said.

Two of the fires only took a half-hour to extinguish, but three of them took two hours. All five fires required the entire force of the River Forest Fire Department and, in one case, the assistance of the Forest Park Fire Department.

While Thatcher Woods is a part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and not technically a part of River Forest, the Forest Preserve District relies on local fire departments as it does not have one of its own. The preserves do have two brush trucks, used to put out grass fires, but they were unavailable at the time of the Thatcher Woods fires. Those trucks can be anywhere in Cook County at any given moment.

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