There was no wind. Though the grasses and weeds had been drying all winter, a late March rain had left a little moisture in the fibers. Looked to me like a fine time to burn off the garden.
Not that I had ever made a garden before. But the rural property I had leased the previous fall included a vegetable garden that had not been used for some years. Why not use it? And the first step to restoring the plot would be to burn it clean.
Ahh ... wetter than I thought. Little gasoline would help here. Got some in the truck. Pour off a coffee can full, spread it around over the weeds, stand back, throw a match, Wuump! there it goes, now we have a nice little fire.
A little fire, and at this rate it will take all day to burn off this little tennis-court sized patch of ground. Little more gasoline, yes, that’s good, match, Wuump!, yes.
Now any country boy can tell you that if you get a fire big enough, convection will cause a column of hot air and smoke to rise directly over the fire, causing low pressure below the column, pulling fresh air in from the sides to fill the void, fanning the flame and making the fire ever more vigorous. Actually a country boy would not say it that way; he would just say a fire draws its own wind when it gets big enough. And he would be right. Now I, being a town boy with a college education, did not know that. But I am fairly bright and I took college physics. My understanding of the matter caught up with the country boy’s on about the fifth aspersion of gasoline.
The eastern boundary of the garden was marked by a fence. Immediately beyond the fence the land rose in a steep slope, sheltered by a stand of tall, rich, oily pines, deeply floored with their needles. I had not paid any attention to this slope before starting my fire. But my attention was now directed to it by the rapid movement of the fire in that direction. For not only will a fire draw its own wind. If there is an adjacent hill, the wind will blow towards that hill. A country boy would probably never start a fire near a dry pine slope and so might never know this particular characteristic of wind. Having already got my fire going, my insight came in an instant.
In that same instant I realized I needed help, fast. My property faced a highway; but nobody came along. Two neighbors’ houses were within hollering distance, but no one was home. No help remained but to call the fire department. But I judged if I did, the fire would jump the fence in the time it took to make the call. So I took my decision to stand and fight the fire alone.
The critical matter was to keep the fire back from that fence. Using the only weapon I had, a gravel rake, I worked up and down the sixty or so feet of the fence, pulling the fire back a few inches here, a few there. I was standing in the fire. I could see only a few feet through the smoke. At times I could not see my own feet. From time to time a smoke wall would open long enough for me to see a fire front even closer to the fence than the one I was on, and I would rush to it.
Up and down the fence. Choking. Crying. Trembling. The fire was not a noose, but it did wonderfully concentrate my mind nevertheless. My whole being was focused on stopping the fire before it crossed that fence.
And I did. After an hour of fighting. By the clock it may have been no more than ten or twelve minutes, I don’t know. I do know that it was a very long time, and I urgently needed to breathe and rest. And I had the fire back several feet from the fence.
There was no rest. I stepped back from the smoke, breathed once, and glanced toward the house, only to see the yard had caught and the fire was three feet from the house. And six feet from my pickup, which had gasoline spilled in the bed.
The dry grass of the yard was short, not much trouble to beat the fire out of it. But by the time I did so the main fire had revived and was again approaching the fence. Back into the flames. This time I got the fire completely out. In some places, it had burned to within less than six inches of the fence and the spread of dry, oily needles.
I stood in the middle of the garden for a while, marveling at how heroically I had fought; how much I had learned about fire and wind; and how utterly alone I had been when I most needed help.
About that time here comes my neighbor Layne. He drives up, gets out of his truck, saunters across to my place, grins, and drawls,
“Thought ye’d birn t’day?”
© 2002 Joseph Mansfield
The burning occurred in 1984, on the grounds of a place called the Haynes house, located in Bryant, a community a few miles south of Dunlap.