Fire 2011: Day 1

It does rain in Namibia, even sometimes in the desert.  But like any semi-tropical country, only in the rainy season.  That season ended about four months ago and is still about three away.  Conclusion: it is currently very dry here.  Result: fires start in a careless instant.

For the past couple of months, voices have been crying out over the CB in the kitchen; fire.  Fire here, come help.  Fire there, they need more hands.  Sometimes the smoke towers could be seen in the distance.  But it was always that, in the distance.  Until last week.

Monday we saw the smoke billowing out of the neighbor’s farm to the north.  We called them up, asked what happened.  Their neighbor on the other side had workers camping in the bush one night and their fire ran away.  Without telling anyone, they let it spread and so it arrived without warning on our neighbor’s doorstep.  We asked if we could help.  No, they had it under control.  Until Wednesday.

That morning we looked outside and the fire had climbed over the hill between us and appeared awfully close to our fence line.  Another fire was already deep into our fields but far from anything it could damage.  Seems something had escaped control. 

Another phone call.  They needed help this time.  The fire was approaching their camp with cattle and what was left of the grass they had to graze.  They needed a firebreak.  Quickly.  We headed over and met another crew ready to go.  We could see the smoke above the trees.  The fire was not far away.

What was fortunate was the camp with the fire was separated from the camp with the cows by the main road.  So all we had to do was burn the grass remaining between the road and the fire to take away its fuel.  And not let it jump the road.  We had a pick-up truck with an enormous tank of water and a power sprayer on the back in case it did.  They call these contraptions firefighters, sensibly.  Then we set a chunk of dead grass alight and dragged it along with a rake.  It was my first time actually starting a wildfire.

It spread quickly and we kept moving forward.  We had a long way to go before the border to our farm.

As we worked, more people staff from the farm showed up with more firefighters.  They started the firebreak heading in the opposite direction.  The owners of the farm, drove through from time to time to check on things.  The husband, calm as a bug in a rug.  The wife, frantic as the flames.  Just to make her feel better, her tire popped in the middle of it all.  I had to continually return to our truck and move it away from the growing flames and snap photos in between.  Sniffel seemed absolutely oblivious to what was going on. 

I walked along with some other fellas, setting fires with matches, or in their case, cigarettes, to speed up the process.  When our fire reached back into the bigger trees the flames grew to sizes I’ve never seen in my life.  They created thick, black smoke, blocking the sun, and made mid-morning feel like late afternoon. 

The other half of the crew finished their side and met us at the border to our farm.  The fire did, too.

We closed what we could with a firebreak but some of it would just have to burn.  We went for a flight later in the evening to see where the fire might be heading, and the damage left in its wake.  It told us tomorrow would be a long day.

The fire found the neighbors’ house.  They were able to stop it without loss.

I came to call these “tree ghosts”.  Like a stick of incense, they fell in perfect form as they burned.  We would see many of them.

Working on my inner morning person

We were up late last night watching the final Women’s World Cup games.  Jay’s dad taped the series for us off his satellite TV since our TV only gets one channel and they did not deem the Women’s World Cup worthy enough to displace their soap operas.  So this morning, I was a little slow.

Jay, the unwavering morning person, woke me up, “Hey babe, wake up.  The weather is just right for flying.  I’m gonna make breakfast, then we’ll go”.  I think I managed to open my eyes and mumble something.  He bounced out of the room, I went back to sleep. 

 Fifteen minutes later, my subconscious reminded me that I was supposed to be doing something and forced my eyeballs open.  I got dressed, brushed my teeth and headed out into the world.

In the kitchen, Jay had made tea for me, coffee for him and pap, a traditional Namibian corn porridge.  I stumble in.  He says cheerily “Ready to go?!”  He had fulfilled his promise to make breakfast but reneged his offer to let me eat it.  I stared at him for a few seconds to see if he was joking or not.  He was not, unfortunately, so with the intention to take pictures for a blog story I grabbed the camera, and quickly begin slurping down my tea.  I had no shoes so I put on a pair of his and clomped quickly toward the hangar, spilling tea all over myself along the way. 

 Jay knows how I feel about wasting gas, so now he always tries to fly his microlight with a purpose.  This morning’s objective was to celebrate the renewal of his pilot’s license, scan the farm for a missing bull, locate a run away donkey and check the water levels of the dams in the back of his land.  We hauled the plane out to the runway, aka the dirt road in front of the house, and prepared it for takeoff.  I realized at this point that I had not tied my hair back and it is going to blow all over my face.  Awesome.  I chug some more tea.  I put on my flight suit for warmth in the cold air up there, Jay swings the propeller.  Seatbelts, goggles, headsets on, I wave goodbye to the dog waiting faithfully in the back of the pick-up, and we accelerate down the road until the air lifts us and we head skyward. 

 Riding in a microlight is an unusual experience.  It’s like riding on a really fast motorcycle in the air.  There is nothing but a seatbelt holding you onto your seat and nothing between you and the sky you are flying through.  Your feet have only little metal posts to rest on.  You become very aware of your mortality.  If you are afraid of heights, it may be utterly terrifying.

Immediately, I began to snap photos.  The bright sun and rushing air and my fear of dropping the camera into oblivion prevented me from seeing what I was photographing so I just pushed the button and hoped for the best.  In between, I scoured the model-train-world below for a feral bull.  Over the hills we flew.  We saw the old, dilapidated hunting camp on one peak.  I noticed how the dominating tree species are different from one side of the hill to the other.  We saw a group of oryx galloping in one direction, then a warthog family dashing in the other.  Wildlife does not seem to enjoy loud, neon pink, flying people interrupting breakfast. 

Here’s a good one of the pilot’s head just after take off. I don’t know what I was actually going for. It’s a nice view of the high-tech cockpit though.

Without locating the bull we set off through the farm.  We saw the fire bushes beginning to bloom.  Spring is coming.  More oryx, and now eland, guinea fowl, and kudu.  I tried to take a picture but was never prepared and we flew by all the herds before I got the damn camera on.  We saw warthog digging up a leaking pipe we tried to fix yesterday.  We saw the cattle we moved into a new camp the day before who still hadn’t found their water trough.

 
The farm house from above. And an arm.

We reached the dams, they had another two months or so of water left.  The last one had an eland drinking from it.  With the sun gently lighting the scene, it was a picture perfect moment and I turned on the camera just for it to tell me the batteries were dead.  “No awesome picture for you, lady”, it said.  I wished I had my tea.

A leeeetle crooked.

So the dams were full, the bull was gone, we never found the donkey and the pictures are far from professional.  But we did get a smooth flight through the early morning and a different view of our everyday world.  We landed safely and I even got to eat breakfast.  I think the day, and my brain, will turn out ok.

And here’s the ground! Probably just past something really spectacular.