February 19, 2019

Impatience and Folly Breed Stupidity

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Impatience and folly breed stupidity.  How do I know?

Stupid was here yesterday.  It’s a miracle he’s here to write this today.

I had a brush pile I was longing to burn.  “I’ve just got to get rid of it!” were my words over the phone requesting the fire permit.  I imagined having to mow around it this coming summer.  What a pain-in-the-neck that would be.

The town clerk was very nice (she is anyway).  Her warning was clear.  “Fire danger is still moderate.”

“I’m sure I can do it safely,” folly answered.

It is true that fire danger has gone down with a cut-off low pressure system stalled overhead.  It’s been here a week, pin-wheeling in showers from the Gulf of Maine.  Before that, fire danger was ‘Extreme’.  I don’t believe fire permits are even issued under those conditions.

But with the rain, impatience took over.  I was so eager to get rid of that brush that I got the permit, ran down and touched off the pile yesterday afternoon.
I was prepared.  I had two five-gallon buckets of water, a full Indian pump, a rake and a shovel, too, in the back of the Polaris Ranger.  Alas!  I had powerful little sense to go along with them.

It wasn’t windy when I started.  Thank goodness.  To be fair, I never would have started the fire if it had been.

I didn’t use any accelerant.  What a waste of starter fluid that would have been.  That brush pile must have been a fuel-air mixture of some sort.  The brush had dried all winter but the spruce and cedar branches in it still looked green.  I struck the match.  The pile went up with a ‘whoomp,’ literally exploding into flame.  I’ve never heard or seen anything like it.  In a flash the entire thing was burning.

The heat was horrific.

I ran frantically around the field putting out grass fires with the Indian pump, my impatience disappearing, a poof of smoke in the towering column behind me.  Thought finally reached my head.  If all these grass fires were started just by sparks, it was far too dry to burn safely.

Sweat ran down my brow, stinging my eyes.  Water sloshed in the tank on my back.  It was getting lighter.  Anxiety, heartburn that wouldn’t quit, seared my throat.  I’d brought two additional five-gallon buckets ― I hadn’t expected to use any of it ― to refill my tank.  After that was gone, I’d have to go to the pond for refills.  What would burn unchecked while I was away?

Meanwhile, the horror I’d started roared.  I worried, ran and doused its offspring.

Ironically, it was the speed of the fire that saved me.  Normally, a pile that size would have burned for hours.  But what had been a huge stack of brush fell in on itself after only 40 minutes. My eyebrows burned in a nanosecond’s whiff of scorched hair as I hurried to push in the ends.  I used a long-handled rake. That was still too close.  But a charred, black perimeter of  20 feet now separated the much smaller blaze from the rest of the field.

But before I could breathe a sigh of relief, a gust of wind from the southwest blew smoke into my face.  I put my back to it and stared with watering eyes at the litter-lined woods a hundred feet away.  If the fire ever reached that-
My heart was already pounding but my pulse doubled at just the thought.

Normally when I burn I make sure that the fire consumes all the brush.  I keep turning the ends into the fire and raking until only a pile of ashes remain.

Today wasn’t normal.  Faced with a sudden, gusty wind springing up from nowhere and acres of tinder-primed  woods to my lee, I wheeled and emptied those two five-gallon buckets of water on the blaze.  Super-heated steam flashed upward in a hiss as I ran to the Ranger.

It was a short ride to the farm pond.  But it took a dozen frantic trips refilling buckets to reduce that fire to a mud wallow of floating charcoal.  By then I was filthy, exhausted and never so happy to have a fire out.  The wind blew the stink of damp, charred wood into my nostrils.  I leaned on my rake and eyed the soaked remains of what never should have taken place at all.

“That was stupid,” I admitted between gasps, chest heaving.

I checked those ashes repeatedly for the next six hours.  I checked them again this morning.  That fire truly is out.


But burned into my mind is something else.  I can now testify from personal experience:  Impatience and folly really do breed stupidity.