A thick fog of smoke filled our valley, drifting eastward from grass fires in the Flint Hills. It was a tribute to the magnitude of that annual enterprise, a tradition that goes back to the days of Indians and buffalo and is in conflict with today’s concerns about pollution and global warming. When we began restoring native grass to our farm over ten years ago, we were warned that the day might come when burning would be forbidden. The practice is supposed to revitalize the grass and knock back invasive weeds and trees. But unruly fires and noxious smoke are at odds with the priorities of encroaching suburban settlers.
We have had our share of mishaps and adventures with fire and approach burning with a mixture of excitement and dread. Some years ago, I briefly set myself on fire as I attempted to fill the water pump engine with gasoline while it was still running. On Jan. 1 of the new millennium, my children set the prairie afire by lighting firecrackers out of season. The Palmyra Volunteer Fire Department arrived just in time before the flames engulfed our barn and roasted our precious chickens.
Sporadic burn bans and the wailing of sirens in our neighborhood alerted us to heightened danger. Nevertheless, we cautiously prepared to burn. I had arranged for the help of two professional area firemen. The wind blew steadily from the southwest. Most of the grass had been mowed, offering minimal fuel and promising a tame fire. The firemen set protective back fires then lit the southern boundary and a band of flames marched northward.
Near the house a patch that hadn’t been mowed burst into towering flames with a sinister crackling. Crossing currents of wind produced an authentic tornado with a black, ominous twisting tail. One of the firemen standing nearby said it made a roar like a passing freight train. When most of the acreage had been burned, a light snow began to fall. The fire died down meekly and we congratulated ourselves on a successful burn.
The next day, a phone call drew me to a window where I saw a terrifying spectacle. Just beyond our backyard was a conflagration — billowing pillars of smoke and fire. I jumped on my four-wheeler and sped to the blaze. I was able to get close enough to the flames to douse them with my sprayer. Then the wind suddenly shifted and the fire began to pursue me. I rushed to the house and called 911. Within ten minutes, the heroic Palmyra firemen appeared and saved the day, just as the flames were approaching the house and our thousand gallon propane tank. Apparently, a cinder from a still smoldering brush pile had been blown by the high winds to a swath of tall grass that we’d left unburned as a refuge for wildlife.
According to our fire chief, the drought had made the spring fires more intense than any he’d seen. If the phone hadn’t rung, I’d have had no way of knowing what was going on outside — until the propane tank blew up, perhaps. All is tranquil and lovely now. The meadow looks like a manicured golf course. But a pair of scorched hedge trees, blackened to a height of more than 30 feet, testify to the destructive force of the fire. They serve as a reminder that the blessed source of warmth and light can also be a malevolent fiend and can turn without warning against anyone foolish enough to imagine he can master it.