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Archive for Sunday, May 6, 2007

Opportune storm douses burning desire

May 6, 2007

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The native grass hadn't been burned for several years. The pasture had become a slovenly mess of dead vegetation. Hedge trees and noxious weeds had taken advantage of the respite and threatened to take over.

Burning is supposed to knock back the illegal aliens and revitalize the indigenous flora but it was either too windy to burn or it rained. Fescue that hadn't been killed off when we planted native grass seven or eight years ago was greening up, which makes for a slow-burning, smoky fire. I feared it would soon be too late to burn.

One afternoon when I came home from Kansas City, the wind suddenly died down. The pasture had dried out, but another storm was on the way. It was a window of opportunity. Recommended procedure calls for four people to manage a burn, but in a moment of impetuosity, I took the plunge on my own. Hastily, I mowed some protective swaths, called the sheriff's office and advised the dispatcher of my intentions, drove the truck with a 150 gallon water tank down to the margin of the field, started the pump and set a match to the grass.

The dry fuel leapt smartly into flames. The chance for prudent reconsideration was past. There was no turning back. The pyromaniac in me took charge. With my drip torch, I laid down a ribbon of flame and when the fire had burned a few feet into my swath, I put it out with a spray from the hose to keep the flames within manageable bounds. Everything was in order, everything was under control, and I congratulated myself on my growing competence after many comical and even dangerous screw-ups since moving to the country.

About that time, the imp of worry began to whisper. What if the pump ran out of gas and I wasn't able to restart it? I took the top off the fuel tank and began filling it up with the engine still running. Such are the foolhardy impulses that get you into bottomless pits of trouble. A spastic movement caused the spigot of my gas canister to slip off the funnel. Fuel spilled over the pump and the bed of the truck. In an instant, my fire fighting equipment was itself in flames. A blast of heat struck my face, singing my eyebrows. Fire danced along the sleeve of my shirt. I had a ghastly vision of going up in a ball of fire without even designating U.S. imperialism or some other target of my protest.

I tried to smother the fire with a tarp, which quickly melted. The plastic gas tank was burning and it occurred to me that if it followed suit, four gallons of fuel would pour out, engulfing the truck in flames. For once in a moment of panic, I did the smart thing. I snatched the tank out of the truck and extinguished its flaming surface. I unhooked the hose from the pump and managed to douse the flames in the truck. But in the meantime, my grass fire was beginning to move from a trot to a gallop. I drove to the house, filled my four wheeler's small water tank and returned just in time to prevent a fiery rampage.

For the next four hours, I managed to control and direct the fire. The windless afternoon made for slow burning, which was good from the point of view of control, but daylight was giving way to darkness. I, who'd been cursing the rain for thwarting my plans to burn now prayed as fervently as any Elmer Gantry ever prayed for rain.

"Where is the storm?" I cried when I dashed back to the house for more water.

"It's raining everywhere in Douglas County - except here," said my wife, who was watching the weather channel. A little after 9, the fire found a lode of tall blue stem and switch grass and the flames shot up ten feet high or more. I was exhausted and feared that the fire was going to visit my neighbors. A few sprinkles fell but the fire laughed them off. I dreaded having to call the Palmyra Volunteer Fire Department. They wouldn't be happy to hear from me at that time of night. Then a peal of thunder cracked open the sky and at last the rain poured down in buckets. In a few minutes, the fire sputtered and was out.

Epilogue: A burned pasture gives a sense of renewal. It expunges the excesses and neglects of the past. The ground was covered with black, rank ashes, but the unruly vegetation was gone. The trunks of invasive saplings were scorched. Their days were done. What a revelation it is to see the land undressed, its secret contours exposed. The prospect inspires dreams of new ponds, food plots, thickets of choke cherries and plums. Two bull snakes were frozen in coils, regrettable victims of the burn. But the buzzards seemed grateful for their remains. Scattered over the blackened earth were bones of coyotes and small deer, perhaps the clandestine work of poachers. The clean burn gave me an opportunity to police the patch where I try to hone my shotgun skills.

"There sure are a lot of unbroken clay pigeons out here," said my wife, brandishing that cruel skill women have of cutting you off at the knees.

A few days after the burn, I dropped in at Mike Amyx's barber shop, where I'd had my luxuriant locks clipped a few days before.

"I knew there was a reason I didn't let you trim my eyebrows the other day," I said, showing him my singed eyebrows. "Could you have done a better job than that."

"Probably not," he said. I told him my story. "You're lucky to be alive," he said.

- George Gurley, a rural Baldwin City resident, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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