4.10.2009,12:51 PM
Smokey memories
Smoke blanketed downtown Dallas like a fog. Even from the thirteenth floor, buildings below were obscured by a flimsy veil. It wasn't orange like the seasonal dust storms that blow in from the west. A heavy blanket of dish rag water dark gray hovered all the way to the ground. Fire.

A call at work from a close friend alerted me that a grass fire was raging near the route I ride home from work. He cautioned to take an alternate route home. The fire was ten miles from my house and approximately 72 miles from Dallas, where my lab is. Winds gusted from the southwest and pushed the smoke this far east. I knew it wasn't a small grass fire. And if there was one, others were probably burning. It was perfect fire weather: high temperatures, low humidity and high winds to feed them.

Wildfires and grassfires elicit a response inside, born of serving with the Maine Forestry Service for two summers. The first summer was in the local fire district. Most of my internship comprised of tower duty, weather data collection and reporting, equipment maintenance, and patrolling forests (including checking dirt bikes for spark arrestors). I was called to assist on three fires.

The first fire was a large and old abandoned building in a tiny rural community. Without their own fire department, the forest service fire crews usually assisted nearby volunteers to control and put out fires in buildings and on empty land. Any blazing building was a threat to nearby grasslands or forests. My role in that fire was an introduction to the science of fires and protocols followed by responders. The power and force, the heat and immensity of that fire burned images and respect into my brain and body that will never be erased or forgotten.

The second was a small fire in a woodlot. Sparks from a chain saw (they also should have spark arrestors) ignited dry pine duff in a logging yard. Along with two rangers and a forest service tanker truck, it was controlled quickly. We spent the rest of the hot day shoveling dirt over duff around the mop up area to expose moist soil.

One day while I was collecting weather data ontop of a mountain peak, a call came in on the radio requesting me to respond to a grass fire. Throwing notebook, gear and equipment in the Jeep, I carefully crawled down granite ledge to the base and radioed for specific coordinates and locations.

"Well.......... the fire is near your house."

Holy crap! "Where??"

"About a quarter of a mile west of your house, near the old apple orchard. We're trying to contain it in the pasture so it doesn't enter the woods."

Oh my god.......... "I'll be there in twelve minutes."

Normally it took me twenty minutes to drive the rural roads to my house, which was on the other side of the hills. But I knew of a gravel road which would reduce that to fifteen or less. It seemed to take forever to get there while trying to control panic from sending adrenaline through my body. I call it 'controlled panic.'

The door was flung open before the Jeep fully stopped. A quick overview told me that the fire was contained and they had just started mopping up. Smoke still swirled slowly in the air from burning embers and that is where I jumped in. But adrenaline still pumped through my limps and brain, furtive glances to the edge of the woods showed how close the fire had come to becoming a serious wildfire, and my cabin still sat safely in the middle of those woods barely a quarter of a mile up hill.

It was close. Since then a healthy respect for fire of any kind still smolders inside.

The smoke was thick at the train station in downtown Fort Worth; I could taste it. With the reduced visibility on the freeway, I watched traffic closely. My throat was getting scratchy and sinuses were burning, so I decided to exit and find refuge in a Border's Bookstore on the way. Keeping watch outside the window, I waited for the wind to die down and the smoke to clear. Three hours later I was back on the freeway heading for home in the dusk of the evening.

As I rounded the corner onto the gravel driveway, the cows were contentedly grazing in the pasture, the air was still and crickets began their night symphony. All was fine at home. But elsewhere nearby in Texas, people lost their homes and a few, their lives. Fires, like tornadoes and floods, are a natural element that we acknowledge living here. It's one of the conflicts that we, as a part of our relationship with this natural environment, try to avoid. Yet, it can be a teacher. And I hope we learn from it.

Fires in North Texas.

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posted by Macrobe
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