The fire

April 13, 2011

It is an epic entry in the annals of family lore that your dad provided by burning a large chunk of the woods behind our house. I was sitting in the house staring at the wallpaper, taking one of the first breaks I had in days. Maybe that was what made the day so insane and caused my responses to be a little bit—off.

Grandma Beanie had suffered a couple of small strokes and was quickly sent to have a carotid artery, roto-rooter type of surgery to clean things up in there. The surgery had gone well and she was recovering from the strokes nicely (you know she recovered; she’s still doing well twenty years later). But I was still staring at the wallpaper and trying to think of nothing at all.

I could hear some kids playing outside and they were probably becoming louder as they approached the house, but I didn’t notice until your dad came barreling through the door yelling, “We started a forest fire!”

Up like a shot, I hopped into my huaraches (wrong shoes for a forest fire, wrong), grabbed a shovel as I flew through the garage and was at the scene of the fire in the woods so fast it was all a blur. Things focused when I stopped in front of the biggest fire I had ever seen. I thought the fire was going to be a small thing started by small boys playing G.I. Joe. I momentarily forgot that Joe never did anything small.

I had begun to shovel sandy soil on to the perimeter of the fire when your dad and his buddy, who had started the fire by burning leaves with a magnifying glass, ran up behind me. I knew that my shoveling was futile, but I was using the time to think and the motion to keep myself calm.

To Brian, your dad’s friend, I said, “Go get your dad.”

To your dad I said, “Joe, go call the fire department.” I know you will think I am making this up when I tell you that he really did ask, “What’s the number?”

I screamed, “911! What the hell do they TEACH you in school?”

The boys were off and running and a few neighbors had arrived to help shovel sand on to the fire. I headed to the house to start pulling garden hoses back to the fire. When I returned one of the neighbors was trying to tell me something, and it just wasn’t coming out. He had a stutter that worsened when he was nervous, and I was trying to politely listen while I tugged on the garden hose. As I handed the hose to Brian’s dad, the neighbor finally was able to tell me what was so important.

“Wh-wh-what w-w-we n-n-n-n-n-need is a th-th-th-th-th-und-und-der-storm!” I looked at him and nodded. There was nothing else to say.

We could hear sirens on two sides of the woods and expected the firemen to come through at any moment. It seemed as though they were taking a long time, but time is distorted in emergencies, so it was hard to tell.

I raced back to the yard where I found a bunch of kids congregating and enlisted a couple of the older ones to help connect garden hoses together, take them to the spigot at the front of our house and to any houses where the neighbors were willing to help. I told the others to go home and told your dad and Aunt Jenny to go inside and stay there. There was no way of telling how bad the fire was going to be.

As I was pulling garden hoses from the front of the house to the back, a big red water tanker stopped in front of the house. I groaned. That thing sitting there would leave little doubt in the neighbor’s minds about who was responsible for the fire. I didn’t know the fire department had huge red water tanker trucks, and was confused about why we needed one when we had fire hydrants in the neighborhood. I learned later that most of our fire hydrants weren’t operable, and the fire department knew that. So, big red truck.

A couple firemen walked to the back yard with me to begin to assess the situation. They told me that they could not gain access for their equipment from any of the three sides of the woods that were next to roads. They wanted to know if anyone knew of any other access, because going through our yard was not an option. The houses were too close together.

As the firemen and I were discussing what we needed to do, Joe came around the side of the house and stood looking at the black smoke that was rising above the woods. I looked at him with fury in my eyes and said, “I told you to get inside!” He just looked at me.

“Get inside or you will not see your ninth birthday,” I said.

“But my birthday is Saturday!”

My voice dropped to its lowest and deadliest. “YOU, may not live that long.”

He turned and ran. It was harsh, but I wouldn’t have killed him. Not really.

I told the firemen that I knew of an access point to the woods, but it had a mound of dirt over it. A neighborhood committee had the mound placed to keep people from dumping appliances and other nasty things, and to keep people from driving dune buggies and other odd motorized vehicles through the woods. We had an additional problem of which the firemen knew nothing; owners of the land where the fire was burning had been logging all summer, taking only the trunks of about a hundred oak trees. They had left uprooted stumps and tree tops with dry, dead leaves scattered throughout the woods. To further complicate things we were experiencing our third year of drought. The whole place was a tinder basket.

I agreed to guide a truck through the woods after the fire department pushed the mound away from the access trail. I was surprised at the small truck they were sending in. It looked like a rescue rig, but I figured they knew what they were doing. It was slow going and we had to stop a few times to have a tree top or uprooted stump moved out of the way. During one of the stops I asked the fireman who was driving,

“What is in that truck that you want so badly to get it back there?”

“Water,” he said.

It suddenly seemed like a silly question, but the truck really was small. The fireman told me that it held 500 gallons of water and I just said, “Oh.”

While we were making our slow way to the fire, two fire crews had managed to run one hose through our yard, and another through the woods from the road on the north side. With the little truck I was leading on the way, the firemen were finally attacking the fire from three sides. The neighbors had kept it from spreading with the shovels and garden hoses while the fire department set up their equipment.

The center of the burned out patch was left completely devoid of anything but ash and a few blackened oak tree stumps that looked like things from an illustrated Dr. Seuss book. The fire had burned hot and destroyed an area of roughly one half of a block by a quarter block. It smoldered all evening and the firemen were there putting out hot spots until late at night.

Your dad lived to see his ninth birthday, as is evidenced by your existence.

We received a taped copy of his 911 call. He did a great job reporting the fire, remaining calm and speaking clearly. He knew how to call for help, but children were taught—and I had taught the same way—to call 911, not the fire department. I should have said, “Call 911.”

To further put responsibility where it belongs I must tell you that your dad and his buddy were doing a not-so-smart thing (burning leaves in the open) in a not-so-smart place (woods) at a not-so-smart time (drought), but the person who had taught them to woodburn with a magnifying glass (albeit on the concrete driveway), that very summer, was me. 911

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