Flames lap around the corners of the shed and the edges of farm machinery, curling in spirals as precise and consistent as hair fresh off a curling iron. They shoot out horizontally sending tendrils of smoke to join the bigger column carrying embers toward an old barn to the west and the field beyond. This is day two of 20 mile per hour winds, and Middle West Volunteer Fire Department has their hands full with six hundred acres of grass, a half-dozen tractors and a shed burning with an entire homestead threatened if it spreads further. At the moment, they work on emptying a 2,000 gallon water tender on the barn and a quonset with one side surrounded with corrals.
Meanwhile, I stand beside the ambulance fighting the underlying urge to grab a hose and charge in. That was a different chapter, I remind myself. And that chapter is over. But my gut churns with excitement! The scent of grass smoke mixed with tinges of hot ammonia from the tractors parked beside a small stack of haybales has my adrenaline pumping Firefighters never die. They wait their turn to make entry.
“A pretty big mess.”
I turn my attention from the column of smoke cutting across the midday sun, lined in orange and brown, and nod at the Hill County Deputy who’s watching the flames. His last name is Lutz. I don’t know his first name, and since he’s a born local, I don’t ask. There’s an unspoken understanding that everyone knows who is who and asking for a name is regarded as an insult.
“Glad I don’t have to put those bales out,” I say.
“They’ll let them sit and go out on their own,” Lutz says.
“No. They’d be here all night.” His dour expression leaves no room for a sense of humor. I shake my head ruefully.
“At my old department, we’d be tearing that whole mess apart and soaking it until you could cold trail every inch.”
Lutz looks at me with an upraised eyebrow, a look that asks, What planet did you drop from? I’m familiar with that look, and it still offends me, but I’ve improved my ability to not react to it. Firefighting is not something a woman should know anything about beyond being impressed by the shiny trucks and outfits.
A late 2000s Chevy pickup pulls up beside the ambulance. A guy in his 50s, dressed in jeans with a stained gray t-shirt stretched over a mellon size gut steps out, mouth working around a wad of tobacco absently as he stares at the fire scene.
“Ward,” Lutz calls in greeting, almost shouting over a gust of wind that knocks me off ballance.
Ward sidles over to us. “Pat. This is a mess.”
“It is. Any idea how it happened?”
“Well, I started this field up over here.” Ward jabs a thumb over his shoulder to the south, straight upwind. “Then I went to town. Thought nothing would spread across that plowed section.”
I open my mouth as a retort jumps up and I clamp my teeth down with a snap on the first syllable. Maybe I need to go find where my medic went, I think, because this guy just took the stupidity cake for lighting a fire directly downwind of his farm with a ten foot fire break between the fallow ground and the hay bales in winds gusting to 30 miles per hour!
Then, I decided I wanted to see how this played out. Afterall, the guy just admitted to arson.
“Yeah, that didn’t work too good,” Lutz commented, shifting his weight casually. Silence followed with neither man inclined to say more.
“How many years have you been burning your fields?” I ask, fully aware that the practice is common even in my old fire district. At least back there, I’d never heard of someone picking a dry, windy day to do the job.
“Oh…my dad taught me about burning when I was just a kid. Do it every few years. I always burn with the wind. Helps get the job done quicker.”
“It always worked before?” I ask, infusing my tone with as much curiosity as possible.
Ward nods. Then he shakes his head, his face puzzled. “It should’ve worked.”
Never should’ve lit it today, y’u dumb shit! More than likely the guy had waited to burn too late. Most farmers burned two weeks before and were planting today. The worn out paint and missing shingles on the house, the collection of old (now charred) farm equipment and the slightly sway-backed Sears and Roebuck barn spelled out a legacy of neglect.
Ward doesn’t speak for several moments. He keeps staring at the fire trucks and his threatened barn.
“Hundred bucks ain’t much. I got my field done.” He fishes into his pocket and pulls out his wallet.
“You’ll have to pay up at the courthouse,” Lutz tells him.
Ward has already drawn out a fifty and freezes with his fingers on another bill. “You sure?”
Lutz nods. “I’ll be back with that ticket.” He heads to his cruiser, leaving me alone with the farmer for whose conversation I have no desire.
After a few seconds, Ward wanders off after Lutz leaving me alone to watch the smoke again as it dances and whirls, the outside edges curling in toward the hot center, a massive black viper with a golden sheen on its scales lifting from the haybales and tractors in a long, twisting, snaking arch which rains ash and embers on the firefighters beneath it. I shake my head, marveling at how different people can be from one place to another, and how consistent, predictable and alive fire will always be.