When I was in the fifth grade, I picked up a fascination with fire.
Like a caveman at the dawn of time, when I discovered the wonders of fire and what it could do, I was hooked.
It is normal for children to go through this - well, I guess I’d have to call it a “learning stage.”
I first started with matches and the gas can….I’d pour a little gas on one of my Matchbox cars, and let her rip.
But a little spill one time stopped me from that. I had this red tow truck, and did the usual “fiery crash” scenario I imagined.
But this time the truck wasn’t the only thing to catch fire….a small stream of gas had spilled when I was pouring, and the fire from the truck followed the spill to the gas can. And then that was on fire.
I put it out quickly, relieved it was no worse.
Another time, I was downstairs watching the old black and white TV in front of an electric heater. I saw the glowing heat and played “I wonder what would happen….if I stuck a piece of tissue paper in that heater?”
Let me tell you what happened. It burst into flame so fast I jumped up and threw it to the floor. Of course, seeing as the floor was covered with red carpeting, that blazing tissue paper caught the carpet on fire. Flames shot all the way to the ceiling.
Panicking, I threw my bare foot on the spot and stomped it out. Then I sat on the couch, terrified. A big, black smoking circle of melted carpet about 2 feet wide was like a black eye on that red carpeting.
Not really sure what to do, I took a green footstool and — you guessed it — covered it up.
That worked until the next morning, when my father approached me about the spot in the basement. I lied. Of course, anyone would have known I was lying, but I thought I knew better.
“Oh I see,” my Dad said in a frigid tone. “So I guess we have some ghost in the house who must’ve done it, right?”
The punishment came forthwith.
But again, the lesson didn’t hit home until the biggie — and the funny (and not so funny) thing about “the biggie” was that my parents didn’t know until a few years ago.
The winter after the gas can fire and the carpet fiasco, I was playing in the snow with this neighbor kid.
A brief background on the neighbor kid — he was a mealy-mouthed spoiled brat who at times would curse so bad it would make a sailor blush. But I didn’t know any better, and he was my age, so we played together occasionally anyway. I learned to “cuss” from him, if that helps your image of this kid.
So we were traipsing around in the snow, which was on its second or third day of sticking around, when he got the bright idea of getting into his parents’ RV.
His parents left him alone quite a lot, even though he was only a fifth-grader. This day was no exception.
So here we were, bumbling around in this camper, and I came across the stove. I’d never seen a stove like it before, so I started fiddling around with the knobs.
Bored with that, I came across a big box of wooden matches. For old times’ sake, I struck one.
But this match did something weird. The fire swept through the air, whizzed across the sink and set the curtains on fire.
Unbeknownst to me, the stove was gas. I had opened all the knobs and the camper had filled with gas.
The kid freaked out, and he and I started running back and forth from outside to inside, carrying wet snow in to try to put out the fire.
But it kept getting worse. Knowing I was up the creek on this one, I decided to go home and get away from the scene.
The camper was a total loss. Because that child was such a brat, his parents assumed he had done it, and so did everyone else. He never got any real punishment out of it, and no one was hurt.
When I broke that to my parents a few years ago, we all got a good laugh out of it,
But fire is no laughing matter.
Since I’ve come to this area, it seems like brush fires are happening every other day. Just in the Tri-County area, there have been at least 65 fires, and I’m giving what I believe to be a conservative estimate.
I can tell you first-hand that fire is a dangerous animal to uncage. When I worked for a newspaper in North Carolina, I was invited by a volunteer fire department to suit up with them on a training mission. I jumped at the chance.
The house they took me to was one of many destroyed by flood waters from Hurricane Floyd. We took a tour of the standard three-bedroom home. There was carpet, linoleum and wood floors throughout the house. No furniture was present, so everything was pretty wide open.
In the living room of the home, there was a pile of flammable materials. Newspapers, some wood, and mostly hay. The pile was topped off with an accelerant.
Even though I was suited up and we were outside, you could hear the fire roar into life.
Thick black smoke filled the house and poured through every available crack it could. The heat built up so quickly the windows were shattering.
Fourth in line to enter the home, the six firefighters and myself got on hands and knees, holding on to the hose.
It sounds funny, but once we crossed the threshold, you could see nothing.
Except thick, black clouds of acrid, burning smoke, churning like a tornado.
Even though we’d toured the house, there was no telling where we were exactly. Everything looked the same. You couldn’t talk to the other crew members in there, even if they were right next to you. You’d hit walls, doorways, and the like, the whole time trying to hold onto a hose and find the fire’s source.
When we did, I had brought a camera and had it in my gloved hand. I wanted a picture so bad I didn’t think. I let go of the hose (stupid) and pulled off the glove (stupider) and snapped three pictures in less than four seconds.
But it was enough. The hairs on my hand and my wrist were sizzled. The back of my hand was littered with blisters.
And the hose was gone. After several panicky moments, and even having a second of sheer mortal terror, I found a boot of one of the firefighters, and then came across the hose.
And this house was empty.
Imagine trying to fight this scenario with a houseful of possessions. Not only is there that much more stuff to burn, but it could make it nearly impossible to find anyone trapped.
Which leads me back to the Tri-County fire situation. Most of these fires are arson, and arson is more than just pouring a can of gas on a house and setting it ablaze.
Arson includes pitching a smoldering cigarette butt, walking into the house to answer the phone while you’re burning leaves, or, the ever-popular campfire gone wild.
A fire I was at the other day, likely caused by leaf-burning, missed taking out a house by little more than 30 feet.
Please, folks, use caution when it comes to fire. Educate your children, and get educated yourself.
You could save your carpet.
You could save the neighbor’s RV.
You could save your homes.
You could save your lives.
John L. Ross is a staff writer for the Times-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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