Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Feel the Burn

Men love fire. We always have and I suspect that even if someday humanity makes it into a permanent space habitat, some guy will be there with a set of matches, staring hungrily at a pile of rubbish and wondering "Gee, will that burn?" Faced with 107 degree heat in the middle of a Texas summer, however, even the most ardent fire-lover would probably hesitate at burning dozens of big cedar trees.

But not Jeff and Annie City Slicker. Oh no, not us, never us, not even in the maw of a burning Hell would we turn away from our Constitutional rights to set fire to our property!

That's pretty much what it felt like, of course -- standing in the burning maw of Hell. Between the 107 degree ambient temperature and the cedar trees bursting into hungry, bright fireballs, I felt like I was melting. If you've ever seen video of a Christmas tree catching fire (see below), you know the feeling. The needles go first and fast, racing into flames in less than five seconds. The heat is incredible, lashing out in a massive wave, and suddenly individual branches and needles disappear in an enormous ball of fire, massive columns of red and yellow twisting and dancing into the sky.

Sometimes the wind picks up at just the wrong moment, and the blasts go literally sideways, licking along the ground for ten or fifteen feet, sending out rivulets of fire like advance scouts. I almost lost control of the burn during one such incident, when Annie was off getting lunch. I got cocky and threw on a tree right when the wind shifted. It fell to one side and burning embers got flung twenty feet in three different directions.

My heart was pounding as I jumped off the tractor, raced to the hose, and scrambled to catch up to each incursion. It looked like someone had thrown rocks into a pond of fire, ripples of flames radiating outward at a frightening clip. The burn pile was an inferno as it consumed the tree, and I could barely force myself to get close enough for the suddenly pathetic-looking stream of water that was my only ally to be effective.

I honestly thought I was going to lose it for a moment, but finally the last patch went out. Cedars burn hot, but they burn fast, so the window of opportunity for disaster is fairly small. One neighbor lost 40 acres before the fire department could put out his grass fire, though, and it seems like everyone I talk to has a similar tale of woe.

It occurred to me that country people have the reputation for being slow -- in all the connotations of that word -- because out here, slow is necessary. If you rush, bad things happen. You could lose a cow, a horse, a house, even your life if you don't take your time and make sure you're doing your job right. The margin for error is much bigger in the city, and you can afford the luxury of rushing, but that's not the case out here.

But Annie and I took things slow (mostly, when I wasn't getting cocky) and deliberate, keeping the pile relatively small and adding only one tree at a time, waiting for it to die down before dumping in another.

Maybe we'll make it out here in the country after all.


Denise said...

I saw a demonstration of a Christmas tree on fire -- I blinked and it was over. You're lucky it didn't get out of control, Jeff.

My boss lives out in the middle of nowhere, and he likes it that way. He said there's nothing better than watching a pile of trash or leaves burn, a beer in one hand and the hose in the other. And then, to put out the last ember, you take advantage of all that beer in your bladder. Ah, country life, he told me. Ain't it a gas...

Denise said...

By the way -- great writing. I could picture the whole episode.