Happy Birthday Smokey

March 15th, 2010

Have you ever met the good folks at your nearby fire department?  I have… went to a new fire house opening ceremony last year, and one of our Scout family parents is the fire chief in a neighboring town.    I also got to meet the local volunteer fire chief  for our area last week.  He’s a nice guy, only he didn’t plan on stopping by for a chat.

But I sort of insisted, after testing the effectiveness of fire on asian grass clumps.

If you’re curious, fire works very, very well to burn asian grass clumps.   A little too well perhaps.   And when there’s a few close together, it really makes a beautiful, big flaming mass of fiery heat.

The only problem was that the grass and leaves surrounding those flames were a little too dry.  The fire decided to march along the pond and up the hillside a bit.   I wasn’t too concerned at first as I controlled the fire…  I’ve had a bit of experience with fires of all kinds on board ships- mostly getting out of the way of the folks that had to fight them.  But I ended up in a few fire parties, and dealing with fuel fires on deck at times.  Those are downright scary when your only option is to get the fire out as quickly as possible.

When you’re new to the seafaring life you practice “blind exit drills” in order to learn how to get out of a ship, or to a safe (safer) place.   After being at sea a while, all it takes to renew the vigor of fire safety awareness is a shipboard fire with dark passageways filled with smoke, alarms blaring, smashing your shins on lower bulkhead openings and racing up or down ladderwells to wherever your supposed to go.  It’s an almost alien, surreal experience that opens your eyes to how tenuous life can be multiple decks below the surface in an emergency.

On an aircraft carrier, with thousands of people on board, there are fire alarms every day.  If it wasn’t a drill it was a real fire somewhere.  Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! Comparment 2-3-4L, port side! Away the fire teams away!” Clang! Clang! Clang!  And on for the next half hour or more with constant updates until the fire is under control.   It’s interesting the first few times you hear it.  Life goes on, the mission goes on, folks are still doing maintenance, training, cooking, planning, eating, flying, and doing what they do to run the ship.

After a decade or so, you actually sleep through it, marginally aware of a fire taking place somewhere, knowing the tenor of the voice on the 1MC and when you’ll need to get to your station or somewhere else.   You say a quick prayer for the folks doing their jobs (poor bas#&$@s!) as best they can while you scrunch up a pillow over your ears.

But I was just raking the edges of my little grass fire, and looked behind me to note its progress.   I was surprised to see the fire racing quickly ahead, leaping at each new tuft of grass, with a little breeze pushing it on.   “Hmmm,” I thought… “It’s not supposed to do that.   Either it’s going to go out by itself, or it’s going to continue to burn up past the trees and hit the neighbors 40 acre hayfield… and maybe get to the woods, and… Oh, crap!”

So then I got my exercise for the day by racing a hundred yards up the hillside toward the house and, for the first time in my life, calling nine-one-one.   I’d love to hear that recording; “Um, huh, hah, huh, there’s a fire, hah, huh, hah… near the pond, huh, huh, huh, at my address, huh, hah…”  “Are you all right Sir?”  “Um, hah, yes, sure, but hah, hah, they better come just, hah, hah, in case…”

I got more exercise as I raced to get the portable watering barrel with the golf cart and fill it up somewhat (I usually always have the water barrel nearby when I use the burn pile, and I’ve never needed it before… murphy’s law!).  The curious 9-year old poked his head out the door looking at me like I’m crazy.   “What are you doing?”     I explain the situation briefly…  “What fire?!”   He was watching tv, and didn’t even know while I’m racing all around.  There wasn’t much to do at that point.  Of course he wants to come out then, but nope, I don’t want him to get hurt.

So there I go back to the fire burning along the pond.   Using the hose, the water helped put out most of the fringe that concerned me, especially where two cedar trees stand.  If you’ve ever seen a cedar tree burn it’s an amazing sight.  Intense, fiery, hot and quick!   I didn’t want to see it right then…

So there I am, finally putting out the last of the fire with smoke billowing up near the pond as the fire chief and a small pumper head down the gravel drive.  He saunters down as the smoke wisps away, clearing up, and says, “Well, looks like you’ve got it handled, huh?”  followed by, “Dispatch, recall all vehicles…”

I then apologize profusely for giving them an impromtu fire drill, but share one of my lifetime axioms in terms of safety that, “If you’re in doubt, there’s no doubt!”  So I thought better safe than sorry.   He was very kind, and said he was glad I called if I was concerned.  For some reason they thought our barn was on fire, and started rolling two other big trucks.  Not sure where they got that idea! Honestly I really didn’t expect to get the fire out that quick… took me about 15-20 minutes I guess.  And I always wondered how long it would take the fire trucks to get to us…  so now I know,  it’s a good 20-25 minutes at best.

He mentioned another neighbor down the road having a similar experience the week before on his dairy farm, nearly burning up his field.    He said “We don’t mind coming out and not getting dirty one bit… especially when we even get to go home early!”   I laughed, and could understand that for sure.   We talked a bit more and he described how he conducted controlled burns, but he said he usually has two or three other guys to help him.

Lessons learned:  Don’t assume recently frozen, wet ground is damp enough to not burn… Take that water barrel or fire extinquisher with you every time…   Chop those darn asian grasses down, or burn them in the rain!  :)  And if you think you need the fire department, then you probably do!

And did you know it’s Smokey Bear’s 65th birthday?  How appropriate.

I was reminded of a few other things that were very practical:  When was the last time you checked your fire alarms?  Or thought about gas cans in the wrong places… or what you might do in case of a fire?  Talked with the kids lately?   Or if your fire extinguishers (if you have any) are still charged up?   Lots more there, but you get the point. I showed the boy around the day after. He was impressed with the size of the area burned.

I also learned that the fire trucks may not be able to get back to our barn very easily.  And that although they don’t carry much water in total on board, they can throw a trash pump in the pond and string hoses a few hundred feet to the house if necessary.

And that if it takes them that long to get here, and find water, it probably won’t be necessary anyway.   Which is why our insurance rates are a lot higher than folks who live close to a fire hydrant or station.

That was my big adventure for an afternoon.  I recommend finding other ways to entertain yourself.

6 Responses to “Happy Birthday Smokey”

  1. Hey Beau! Great post. Glad things turned out okay. My motto has always been “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” — so I think the same applies to emergency services. In my days as a deputy sheriff, I never really complained when I got to a call and I really wasn’t needed. It was always good practice for when you really were needed. Hope you’re doing well and getting ready for a busy beekeeping year ahead!

  2. Ed

    I help my parents burn a couple hundred acres of CRP land every year and I have a couple more tips. 1. Buy a rubber flapper to stamp out fires. They are so much more efficient than a rake which only tends to spread embers. 2. We always call the fire department in advance to warn them we are burning in case they get calls from well intentioned passersby and let them know where. 3. Learn the principles of back burning and use that to control the fire. 4. Humidity and wind are the two most important factors for determining when to burn.

    Glad you got it put out and nothing was harmed.

    By the way, when you were talking about ship fires, all I can think about was the fire on the ship McCain was a pilot on and almost got turned into toast. That is a scary video!

  3. The problem is you started too early in the year. Everybody knows –at least in the Ozarks– that on Easter Sunday, you go to sunrise service, followed by Baptisms the creek of all the people who professed faith during the winter, followed by lunch, followed by burning the woods. It gets rid of the old stuff and kills the ticks.

    Try it again next month.



  4. glad you got it out and I’m not sure I could sleep on a ship, even as large as a carrier, knowing there was a fire somewhere on board.

  5. Vince

    LOL, I’ve just come in from burning up all the timber trimmings that I cut last summer and autumn. And I can honestly say that there was the odd fission when I would go “ooooooh Wooooooo” when the flame would leap towards some trees.
    I have the feeling that when I check some of my tenderish trees I will be doing more burning later. Delighted everything is OK.

  6. Mark- Thanks; Yeah, glad for those times you weren’t needed. Bees will be set up in a month- I’m looking forward to them.
    Ed- Great points re. controlled burning. Our woods are too close in proximity to do much of that, but I’ve used similar techniques to help others in the past. I usually only burn after a rainy night, early in the morning with little to no wind! Oh- yes, the Forrestall was the ship you were talking about. Very dramatic documentary, and sad for those who lost their lives. Always a great fear of the same…
    Randall- Now that sounds like a plan! I like the part about the ticks… :)
    Sage- Like anything, it’s amazing what you can do- or get used to- after a while ;)
    Vince- Ha! Must feel good to have that done. I need to conduct more trimmings myself. I know what you mean about the fire… my burn pile is in the middle of a big (quarter acre) circle of oak trees. Sometimes I’m amazed how tall the flames will leap!

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