Dark Arts Politics:
Firebreaking, Part 1
One Summer many years ago in Tennessee, the countryside had suffered a months-long drought. Every blade of grass from one county to the next was as brown as it could get without just disappearing into the dirt. The crops were in bad shape, too. The heat was enough to wither every living thing, be it plant, beast, or the occasional man who should have been out doing field work but instead sat on the porch just staying quiet in the shade, provided there was any.
John lived on a large patch of land, about half of it in front of his house and half behind. Sitting on the front porch, he could look down a long, fairly steep slope of grass toward the road maybe a quarter-mile away. Calling it a road might have been a little on the optimistic side. Stone hadn't been put down in a couple of years, so it was mostly a dust cloud machine every time a car or truck went by. Fortunately, no one had a house too close to the road. Other than the mailboxes, it was pretty barren down there except for a stack of hay bales John had put down there a couple of weeks before for a farmer who never came to pick them up.
The road was to the north of the house. The west side of the property was a thicket of tall, thin trees, more than a few of them dead, with enough underbrush to make it hard to step into the woods except along a couple of paths that led to the little shack by the creek. John had vowed any number of times to get his chainsaw and hatchets out of the barn and take to those dead trees and brush. There was a lot of firewood back in there just waiting to be harvested.
To the east of the house was the long driveway that came up and forked off to a pull-in near the back door on one side and kept going on the main part back around to the old barn, which looked as if the slightest wind would have toppled it even though it was actually, despite its terrible appearance, just as solid as the day it was built, other than for a few boards missing here and there.
Phil and Dan, John's brothers, had come by from the other side of the holler with their two boys one fateful Sunday afternoon in early August. The heat was just ungodly that day, but the front porch was under a canopy of huge trees that kept it awfully pleasant. The iced tea Sarah had brewed that morning made it altogether pretty darned nice sitting out there, the five of those fellows barely saying much of anything but enjoying the company nonetheless. The two boys were about 12 and 15, just learning how to be lazy when the occasion merited, even though they fidgeted a little more than they needed to, given the heat and humidity.
Someone mentioned the thin line of dark clouds banding the horizon to the northwest. The line was solid, and that meant serious rain was on the way; but it would be at least several hours before the storms hit. There wasn't much point in doing anything other than sitting around, what with the heat and all.
Now, that slope in front of the house was just steep enough to keep the road out of sight. The tops of cars could be seen, but the road itself was hidden. That's why the men sitting on the porch didn't see what was happening down there right away. In fact, even after they saw it, they didn't really think about what they were looking at.
White smoke. It was pretty thick and spread out by the time Dan said something like, "What th' heck is that?" John stayed seated there for a second, and then he just flew out of his chair, ran down the steps and out a ways so he could see.
"Grass fire!" he yelled as he came running back up the hill, past the house, and on back to the barn. Dan and Phil weren't far behind. The boys just sat, not quite knowing what was going on.
When Dan came back, he had the chain saw in his hand. Phil wasn't far behind, lugging a splitting maul and several hatchets. "Come on!" Phil hollered at the boys as he went flying toward the tree line and down the hill.
Contrary to what some people might imagine, grass fires don't always move fastat least they don't look like they are. Sometimes, they look like they're just crawling forward, but somehow they manage to be all over the place very quickly, forming a wide perimeter of black that glows along its edge. It's that width that's the problem. As the fire spreads, it becomes harder to contain it, even though it looks like it's manageable.
A grass fire can be patient. It'll crawl along feeding on the dried up, mashed down carpet of what used to be green lawn; but what it's actually doing is probing, looking for the real fuel that would turn it from a crawling, smoldering problem into a raging, towering monster.
Phil, Dan, and the two boys had about forty feet between where they were at the edge of the woods and where the grass was on fire in a twenty-foot wide swath working its way toward them. Dead trees, live trees, brushthey took everything down and threw it forward. The boys chopped and dragged the trees Dan was dropping, while Phil was using the splitting maul to the entirely inappropriate purpose of busting up the clay dirt and kicking it forward along with the grass and weeds in it.
As the fire pushed forward, the boys pushed toward it with all the fuel the forest would have otherwise provided to start a conflagration.
Sarah had joined in, hauling two buckets of water at a time down from the cistern behind the house. She didn't throw the water right on the fire; she knew better. That water was going behind the fuel the boys were pushing and on the sides of where the fire was going to be as it moved toward the trees.
A gust of wind came up, and nothing happened; then all of a sudden both boys jumped backward just as that wood and brush they'd been dragging and pushing burst into flame. If there'd been any more of those wind gusts, the embers would have gone right past were Dan was still sawing down trees; but fortunately, the fire stayed right where it was, feeding itself like a glutton.
And that's where it died. The men had fed it everything they could to deny it anything it might find behind that hog trough of wood, dead grass, and dry brush they'd pushed forward.
Once the fire on the line had died down, Sarah's last buckets of water put the thing to sleep for good. After quite a bit of stomping and kicking the remnants back into the blackened area where any remaining embers could do no harm, the crew trudged back up the hill toward the house.
It was along the way that they realized they were walking beside a strip of blackened grass going up the hill. Once they got up far enough, they could see John: he was sitting on the ground maybe ten feet in front of the porch, drenched in sweat, with a shovel stabbed into the ground beside him.
There was John, there was a swath about eight feet wide of black grass, and between the two of them was a ditch about two feet across, a shovel blade deep, and some fifteen feet long.
That's where John had made his stand. And all by himself, that's where John had saved his house.
After everyone stopped shaking and sweating, Sarah drove into town. She went to White's Grocery and bought quite a bit of beer and enough slices of ham to feed an army. She wasn't in the mood to cook, but she figured everyone was in the mood to eat and drink, so beer and ham sandwiches would do fine. She got the boys some bottles of Fanta grape soda, and everyone was going to like Hostess cream-filled cupcakes for dessert.
The storms finally got there in the late afternoon. The rain was one of those all night affairs, the kind that start hard and just keep on pouring.
Those big old front porches are great when it's raining. The whole family can sit and watch the showers come down and stay dry as a bone. Staring out at the deluge, John grinned and said, "See? If we'd have just waited, all this rain would've taken care of the fire." Everyone grunted something sort of like a weary laugh.
Part 1 · Part 2