Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smoking the Neighbors Out

We’ve lived here three years, and we met one of our next door neighbors for the first time last week. It’s great that we finally know each others’ names, but it’s kind of disappointing that we almost burned down their house to get acquainted.

I have previously written about our experiences adjusting to country living, especially the necessity of having to burn things. By now we should have become old pros, having successfully completed several burns of dead brush over the years. We can easily knock out a large burn pile in 1 to 2 hours.

The previous owners of our property planted a lot of trees and shrubs, which is usually aesthetically pleasing in the spring and summer. But as a result of several years of drought, a lot of trees, shrubs, and vines have died. The dead stuff is not so appealing. We’ve spent the last six months pulling up dead trees and bushes, creating not one but two massive burn piles.

The second burn pile was in our front yard and had grown to a good 7 feet high by 20 feet in diameter. With the hot, dry season just around the corner and knowing a new burn ban was imminent, we decided it was time to get ‘er done. I followed protocol and called the sheriff’s office to let them know we’d be burning that afternoon. Fine, they said.

We proceeded in our usual manner, with me watering the ground around the pile and St. Pauli Girl sprinkling on some diesel fuel and lighting the pile. I stood to the side by our neighbor’s fence with the hose, watering more ground just as a precaution.

Let me point out here and now that dead wood, brush, and leaves burn really fast. I mean really, really fast.
As usual the flames quickly roared through the burn pile, spouting up a good 12 to 15 feet in the air. I started to back away as the familiar intense heat came at me. Before I knew it, I was protecting myself behind a tree, well away from the huge fire. Although it was a particularly hot day, everything was going as expected.

Then the wind kicked up, blowing the flames north. At that point St. Pauli Girl made the crucial decision to pick up the hose and move it away from the fire. She later said she was afraid it might melt. Suddenly, a huge gust of wind came, pushing the flames even higher and further away from the pile. I heard a cracking, then a small explosion sound. I looked up into the big oak tree I was standing behind that was a good 30 feet north of the burn pile and watched in horror as clusters of leaves burst into flames.

"The tree’s on fire," I yelled to St. Pauli Girl, pointing.

She looked up and immediately turned the hose on it. The wind was persistent, and the flames showed no sign of dying anytime soon. More branches burst into flames.

"Go call 911!" St. Pauli Girl yelled, jerking at the hose to get closer to the tree.

I ran back to the house to retrieve my phone. I couldn’t believe we were about to torch our yard and maybe even the whole neighborhood. But once I grabbed the phone, I hesitated. Then I made a tactical decision: I would to wait just a few seconds to see if the burning tree had gotten worse. I figured if I called too soon, the fire department might show up after we had everything under control, only to yell at us. Whereas if the fire had spread out of control, the tree and most of our yard would already be in the ashes of history anyway, regardless if I called right then or waited 30 seconds.

I ran back to the fire to see that the main fire had indeed calmed down as a result of the dying wind, and the tree was now only charred and dripping. St. Pauli Girl continued to spray water into the branches. The main burn pile had returned to its usual normal "boring" status.

A few minutes later, our neighbor whom we’d never met wandered out toward us. "Almost got us," she said.
I looked up at her tree which hadn’t been touched. I wanted to say we had it under control but I just shrugged instead.

"I could feel the heat all the way on my back porch," she continued. (Her back porch is probably a hundred yards away.)

We chatted with her for several minutes while keeping a careful eye on the fire. We had already decided to not add any more brush to it, and to save burning pile #2 for another day.

After she left, I asked St. Pauli Girl, "Do you think she really felt the heat back there?"

"No. I think she heard me yell at you to call 911."

So other than our own tree, there was no collateral damage, and we were saved the humiliation of dealing with lectures from the fire department and sheriff’s office. But we’ll probably not volunteer at the annual homeowner’s association cookout this year.

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