Controlled burn was under control – briefly

There seemed to be little risk in starting the fire (a witness narrative that must lead off most fire investigations). I mean it was October, and the giant Bermuda grass was still plenty green. Not to mention it was only a mesquite stump that needing burning, which I could easily monitor.

After drilling a series of holes in the stump to absorb the diesel fuel and let in air, I fired it up. Initially the brittle wood burned well enough, but not nearly as spiritedly as the surrounding grass. It was one of those “Oh, sh… ! ” moments – like pumping the brakes and nothing happening.

Turns out the pasture was wearing a disguise: green on top but laced with dead tendrils beneath. And so the fire began to fan out from the stump like a stain of crackling orange liquid. Still it seemed manageable – if just. I found a piece of lumber and began beating at the flames. They hesitated, smoked and then resumed the march.

At that moment, I was seized by a form of panic, not that the fire was going to burn anything of real value (trees and fence posts but it could not have spread beyond the pasture, which was segregated by pavement and green lawn), but that I was going to have to call Uvalde’s finest. That, of course, would set in motion a series of cascading events that would culminate with a report in this newspaper.

I hurried to the house and alerted my wife that I had inadvertently fired the pasture and was sorely in need of volunteers. Mercifully, she sprang into action with minimal eye rolling and replied in the affirmative when requested to produce burlap sacking.

Armed with new tools and buckets of water to soak the burlap, we responded to the scene, which was now emitting a towering volume of gray smoke. My wife went in one direction and I in the other, slapping at the lines of flame for the next 30 minutes. Just when it looked as though we had gained the upper hand, a tongue of fire reached a fallen mesquite and quickly ignited the branches.

Fortunately my cell phone was in the house or that might have been the 911 moment. My fellow firefighter joined me and after more exertions the flames around the burning tree subsided. The grass fire was actually under control. We put down our blackened burlap, and I looked at my wife whose face and clothes were streaked with soot.

“That was kind of rewarding,” she said with a broad smile. “I liked it.”

And she was absolutely right. In 42 years of marriage we had never fought a real fire together. There have been plenty of metaphorical fires but not the variety that sears your face and leaves you dripping with sweat.

This is not to suggest that married couples should torch their property in search of a bonding experience. Surely there are more benign adventures that a husband and wife can undertake to find togetherness in fending off a semi-existential threat. Fighting a grass fire is nothing like what combat soldiers experience but it is easy to imagine how close you would become to someone who literally had your back.

As I was writing this column last Monday, the police scanner crackled with the report of a controlled burn that had turned ugly. A portion of a ranch near Concan was on fire, and structures were threatened. We later learned that the property owner had decided to burn feed sacks in a barrel and then left the scene to hunt.

It took four fire departments to contain the resulting blaze. I hope the man’s wife was one of the responders and reacted with my wife’s enthusiasm for fire fighting. Otherwise, it could have been a pretty bleak Concan Christmas.



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