Smoking Out the Danger Of Grass Fires

(Yeah, the photo's shaky -- I was busy.)



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK

            “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. And suppose you set controlled burns, but didn’t keep an eye on them. But I repeat myself.”
- Mark Twain

            Okay, folks … let’s go over it again.

            Many years ago, when I was a rookie volunteer firefighter, we showed up at the scene of a large ground cover fire. Ground cover, in that case, meant it was burning through fields on three sides of a house, all the way to the ditches along the roadside. Only the shortness of the grass kept the flames from sweeping over the lawn and setting fire to the house – something that actually did happen to another place last summer.

            We pounded on the door to alert the occupants of the danger. A guy came to the door, wrapped in a towel, and explained that it was a controlled burn and he didn’t need us. He had been “controlling” the burn from the comfort of his bathtub.

            What he needed was a controlled iron skillet to the side of his head.

            Spring in Indiana is one of those times when everything blooms: flowers, allergies, columns of smoke, everything. Between the time the snow melts and the time all the foliage starts greening up, property owners have a window of opportunity to burn off various areas where they want to get rid of old, dead stuff, like weeds and last year’s election signs. If done properly under the right conditions, there’s minimal danger to anyone who doesn’t have a lung condition.

            Even then there’s always the chance of an unexpected change in wind direction or speed, or the all-too-familiar scenario of someone just not understanding how fast fire can spread. It’s like me working on my plumbing. (My home’s plumbing, I mean.) I know the risks, I think it’s under control, and it explodes in my face. Sometimes literally.

            As with my home maintenance attempts, sometimes simple little grass fires almost get me killed.

            Grass fire season here in northern Indiana is relatively minor. We don’t have the explosive underbrush of southern California, or the huge, inaccessible forests of the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes, in a particularly wet spring, we hardly get a grass fire season at all. Other times, as with last summer, things stay dry and the danger stretches on into the summer.

            Often, in both cases, the fires just get away from the people who start them, and it takes a little help to stomp them out. It’s also not uncommon for us to pull up and find dozens of acres, vehicles, barns, homes and, once or twice, people burning.

            I’ll tell you a little secret: I’ve always liked fighting grass fires. It dates back to my younger days, when I lived to put the blue stuff on the red stuff. I found a chance to do it with fires that burned across fields, meadows, and woods, but rarely did major property damage. It was exciting, but not terribly tragic … usually.

            But time goes on, and you see things. Almost getting killed never bothered me all that much, because I’m not that smart; seeing others almost get killed, or lose their homes, did. The easiest fire to fight is one that never starts.

            Which brings me back to my point.

            Having a controlled burn on your property is not brain surgery. It smells way worse. Or maybe not, what do I know? But the number one rule of both is that if you don’t have to, or if it’s more dangerous than it’s worth, don’t do it.

            The number two rule is to call your local police agency – around here usually the Sheriff Department – and let them know about your controlled burn. This prevents false alarms, in which a bunch of angry firefighters show up at your door ready to drown you in your own bathtub. Once they get there, half will be angry that it’s a false alarm, and the other half upset because they don’t get to put a fire out.

            The number three rule is to figure out how much fire you can control, and what you need to control it with. Once, when I was driving out in the country, I topped a rise and saw the ditch burning on both sides of the road and both side of the cross road, literally as far as I could see. People, if it’s just you, a broom, and an ATV, and you’ve set a fire line eight miles long, you do not have a “controlled” burn. Keep it small, and have lots of water, shovels, brooms, fire extinguishers, and cell phones.

            The number four rule is to burn against the breeze, so the fire can’t spread rapidly, and to not burn at all if the wind is too strong. Considering how grass fire and tornado seasons come so close together here, I can only imagine that sooner or later they’ll combine into one spectacular, almost Biblical twister of flames. I’d better copyright that idea before SyFy gets ahold of it.

            (My wife informs me that SyFy has, indeed, already produced a movie on this subject. *sigh*)

            The number five rule is don’t wait too long before calling for help if things get out of hand. Don’t worry about being embarrassed … do I get embarrassed when I have to call for help as water from my sink sprays into an electrical outlet? Well … yes, but still.

            The number six rule is, don’t be stupid.

            Actually, that pretty much covers them all.