Fire 2011: Day 2

Sometimes you can look at the morning sky and know exactly what the day will be like.  This was one of those days.  The sky was hazy; filled with black smoke pillars rising over our hill.  

The fire had, inevitably, moved into the next neighbor’s farm. But it was spreading within our own as well.  We met him on the border road fence line.  None of us knew quite what to do to contain it.  This time we had no road to work with, the fire was moving through deep, dense bush.  We tuned our radios to the same channel, wished each other luck, and parted ways.

Jay sent his right-hand man out on the tractor to plow a firebreak through the bush.  We had to keep it from spreading further.  The direction it was headed would end at our house, reservoirs, and cows and pastures.  Our only option was to try to encircle the fire with the tractor and burn towards it, as yesterday, to take away its fuel.  So we sent the tractor into the least thick bush, picked a spot with a lot of grass and set it on fire.

Today we had only four people, one was on the tractor, leaving three on foot to keep the fire from jumping the break. (This accounts for the few pictures I have for this day, please forgive me.)  We had one firefighter but we had left it behind since the newly cleared road was quite rough.  It started smoothly, Jay dragged the fire along with a rake, and me and Eddie, a donation of labor from the neighbors to the north, had firebeater sticks to stamp out any rogue sparks.  I expected some as the road was only two meters wide and the wind was strong and irregular.  So I ran back and forth between the two ends of the spreading fire.  If it did jump, we would need more than one man on the job.

In between, I had some time to think.  I worried about the tortoises.  I knew the antelope could run, the birds could fly, but the tortoises had a slim chance if they got stuck between the two fires racing to meet.  I found one little guy on the road trying to cross to safety.  I helped him to the other side. 

I also thought my choice of a tank top for clothing was not my smartest idea.  The sun was strong and I knew I would be pink by the end of the day (I was). 

I walked past what we had already burnt.  It looked like a war zone.

I hope there were no tortoises in there.

I returned to Jay with an all-clear report from the other side.  We chatted for a minute and then I began to stroll down the line again.  I should’ve stayed with him.  A minute later he was yelling for help.  I turned on a dime.  Even so, by the time I got there, we couldn’t keep the flames down.  It was scorching hot and the smoke kept us from seeing and/or breathing properly to effectively fight.  I told him to get the firefighter, I’d do my best in the meantime. 

I beat those flames for all I was worth.  I tried not to listen to my crying eyes, parched throat, coughing lungs or jello arms.  I thought about the tortoises and the house on the other side of the hill.  They were depending on me.  But the fire kept spreading.

In no less than an eternity, Jay came flying to a halt in the truck.  We started the generator and the water began to flow.  In a minute we had killed it, what we couldn’t do in twenty minutes by ourselves.  We stood back and looked at our 10-meter, semi-circle of ash and laughed at our close call.  Too bad it wouldn’t be the last.  I proceeded to drink about a gallon of water.

We decided to keep the truck with us from now on.  After the fire on the proper side of the road had died down, we drove down to our other man and found he, too, had had a mishap.  Luckily, the tractor had been with him and they were able to carve out a break around it.  We all worked together after that.

We couldn’t plow a road up and over the hill so we aimed at a spot at the bottom with many big boulders.  There, the fire would not be able to pass.  Eddie walked behind the tractor with the fire rake, Jay drove the truck slowly behind him and I was on the back with the firefighter putting out what I could along the road.  It still spread toward the approaching fire but now would not, and did not, jump the break.

The fire reaches a pile of debris discarded by the tractor.

Although we sped it up by working together, the job still took a couple of hours.  We all drank a lot of water throughout, refilling our bottles with our trusty firefighter.  Eddie had a cigarette from time to time, despite our constant proximity to an intense fire. When we reached the hill the sun was heading into late afternoon hours.  And we still had a whole other side to burn.

The fire we had just halted was the one on our farm.  There was still a fire on the neighbor’s farm which would burn the camp we had just saved if we did not stop it.  So from the end of the first fire we started another.  And then we got a flat tire.

Here the truck drives along our firebreak as I put out what we’ve started. It was a long and intimate day with the flames.

So, after a quick change we were back in action.  Same procedure as before; rake, truck, water.  But the road was narrower now, the tractor had only gone through once.  We had to retrace our tracks many times to catch jumpers.  After half an hour of progress we looked back and saw a smoke pillar on what looked like the wrong side.  We raced backward and sure enough, the camp we worked all day to protect was burning.  Something, somewhere, had escaped.  The firefighter couldn’t help if she wanted to, her tank was empty.  The tractor went to work trying, again, to encircle the fire.  We radioed the neighbor to find his nearest water point.  In half an hour we were full and back at the fire.

Our tractor man had done a remarkable job while we were gone.  He had made two roads; one to stop the fire and one to stop the fire when it jumped the first one.  When we got there, the danger was gone and we put out any flames near the edges.  I think he won MVP for the day.

The next day from the air we could see the extent of the tractor maze.

We returned to where we’d left off and continued around the neighbor’s border without incident.  We met them at the end when the sun disappeared from the sky.  Just as we both agreed our respective sides were under control, our northerly neighbor radioed saying the fire was heading toward our house.  There were not two fires that day, but three, and this one had climbed our hill.

Despite the darkness and exhaustion, the day was not over.  As we pulled up to the front gate, we could see the sparkles of multiple hot spots on the hill overlooking our house.  It was actually quite pretty and looked like a little village had sprouted.  It felt rather cozy.  We had a swig of whiskey then got back to reality.  We refilled the firefighter and burned a line between our house and the fire.  This time we didn’t run out of water, we ran out of fuel to pump the water.  So we ditched the rake and the truck and each grabbed a firebeater.  Fortunately, we were in a rocky area with not a lot of grass so we managed manually.  Then we called it a night.  The fire never came down from the hill.

                      Our late night, cattywampus attempt to protect the house.
Although we took a shower that night, everything still smelled like smoke; our food, our cats, our bed.  Regardless, I fell asleep quickly, thinking our firefighting days were over.

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