Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Dog Named Turbo and the Ant Fire

I like to think of this blog as a record of my doings and happenings in the world, and generally I like for those to be services of benefit to others and epic adventures with a moral at the end. However, I am afraid that this latest entry is not going to really fit either of those categories. I'm afraid that today I did the world a bit of a disservice.

I started a brush fire.

Well, not me, really, but I was involved and I certainly didn't stop the stupid plan of lighting a fire in dry dry central Utah from going forward. Let me rewind a little bit before I start justifying (or rationalizing) too much. It all started with helping the college house's newest resident, Jamie (AKA Kentucky) move in.

Kentucky was living in a terrible little apartment with no stove or cooling before he heard of the college house. He would have moved in straight away if he had known of it before coming here, but we didn't connect with 'tucky until Manti Pageant. Moving in after the fact was complicated, however, by the fact that he had bought a dog after arriving, a non-starter for college house living. In true Kentucky form, the dog was named Turbo, surely a sign of Jamie's fondness for turbo-diesel trucks. Well, a couple days ago he went outside and found his dog gone, and with it his housing problem. (Heartless, I know, but true)

And so Jamie made plans to move into the college house today, and we spent most of the day doing all the things that that entails: borrowing Shane's dump trailer, breaking into Keegan's truck to get the dump trailer controller so we can dump out the junk in said trailer, picking up a totally sweet wooden spool at the dump to use as a coffee table-- but I digress. Y'all know how moving works- you get the biggest vehicle you can manage, throw as much stuff in as will fit, and drive to the new flat and reverse the procedure.

Well, we got Kentucky most of the way moved in (the bed is here, and that's what counts) and were grocery shopping to fit his new-found stove access when a call came in. 'Tucky had an announcement made on the local radio station regarding the missing Turbo. Someone a few blocks away from Jamie's old place had picked up a dog matching Turbo's description. We headed straight over from Walmart and sure enough, there was Turbo. Well dadgum. Now we have the dog situation to figure out.

Fortunately, we weren't completely out of sorts- before Turbo ran off, 'Tucky had been examining options for finding a place for Turbo so he could stay in the college house. In fact, the deal to have Turbo stay on some land belonging to a gentleman in our church was all but sealed before Turbo ran off. When we got Turbo back again we just needed to get the final go-ahead and make it happen. The land in question is about 10 miles out of Ephraim and the barn which would act as an oversized doghouse needed some shoring up before a dog with a Houdini history could be let loose inside.

The refurbishment would have to wait, so we decided that we'd tie him up for the night in the barn and get it dog-worthy after we finished moving. And so we headed off to the land with Turbo and an enormously heavy Utah-style (construction remnants) doghouse in the trailer. Given that Turbo had been good enough to escape before, we decided it was high time to get a proper collar for him. (Ed. note: I looked at the rope 'Tucky used to tie him up before- the mock-collar was a shoelace. True Country, right there.)

Given that Turbo is only three months old, the collar was of course too big for him. Well, we've got a country solution to that- we'll just put another hole in it by heating up a piece of baling wire that is sticking out of the wall and poking it through the nylon webbing of the collar. Well, we took out the lighter and got to work. And, well, you know what we did with that lighter in that rickety old barn in the middle of the field full of dry grass? Can you guess? We put a hole in the collar. Worked like a charm.

With that problem effectively solved, we looked to wrap up our mission by improving Turbo's accommodations. After all, 'Tucky was moving up in the world, so we ought to see that Turbo had a similar upgrade as well. We had two problems with the area where he was tied up- there was a fire ant hill close enough that he could get into it, and all the dry grass around the barn was rather prickly and unpleasant on Turbo's soft little puppy feet. Our hearts were moved with compassion for Turbo, and it was decided (rather complicitly on my part) that the obvious thing to do was to pile up some of the grass on the anthill and light it so that the ants would be burnt out.

So we lit a little bit of grass on top of the anthill. It burned very quickly. I started plucking up clumps of grass and throwing them on the fire at a controlled rate. At this point I was actually more concerned with keeping the fire going than with it getting out to control- the grass I threw on burned up so quick that by the time I threw the next clump in, the last one was almost completely gone. While I was pulling up grass to throw in, I saw out of the corner of my eye that two spots of fire had appeared off to the side by 'Tucky. I figured he had it under control. I never did mention that Kentucky was a volunteer fire fighter. In fact, he joined just the day before. He's also a salesman for his dad's business of selling rescue equipment like the Jaws of Life and firefighting equipment.Jamie is not unfamiliar with the firefighting business.

It is at this point that I am somewhat unsure of what exactly happened. There were those two little spots of fire a few feet from the anthill, and then all of a sudden things got crazy. The fire started spreading out into the dry grass surrounding us. It became apparent that we should control the fire, and so we started stomping out the burning grass. Right then it didn't seem like we had a big problem- the fire was pretty small and we could stomp it down pretty quickly. However, things got out of hand really quickly. The flame front was growing faster than we were stomping it out and we started working quickly to stay ahead of it, but to no avail. It became apparent that the fire was serious at this point. Stomping wasn't effective anymore, and we grabbed boards to beat the fire out with. This was working better, and I was beginning to think that we could get the fire contained and out. However, the boards were dry, weather-rotted, and soon broke into pieces, becoming useless.

We got way behind the fire at this point. Jamie was starting to flip out a little bit. Furthermore, the more the fire spread outwards, the harder to got to control. A three-foot ring of fire is one thing. A thirty-foot ring is a lot more fire. We knew we wouldn't get back ahead of the fire at this point and Jamie called to me to call 911. I've been reluctant to call 911 frivolously my whole like, after all, I'd rather solve my own problems than have a dozen people rustled into frantic action and rushing down to highway to help me. I recognized now that playing it safe called for containment of the fire, not politeness in not inconveniencing the responders. I got on my phone and called 911 while continuing to try and fight the fire with my other hand, now using a two-foot-square piece of roofing tin to smother the fire.

After I gave 911 our location, Kentucky shouted at me to move his truck- the flames were starting to get close to it, and the last thing we needed was an engulfed vehicle. As I ran to the truck I tried to toss my sunglasses in the back but missed- normally I'd stop to pick them up, but firefighting had suddenly turned into Serious Business. I jumped in hoping that he'd left the keys somewhere obvious. I tried to start his truck but found that I'd turn the key and nothing happened. It was a manual truck, and I knew enough to push the clutch in to start it, but nothing would happen. After frantically turning the key a dozen times or so I heard Jamie shout "You have to push the clutch in HARD!" I bore down on that clutch pedal with the whole of my strength and turned the key- it started. It didn't feel like the clutch moved any more, but I guess ornery old trucks like his are entitled to their idiosyncrasies. While this was going on I was listening to the dispatcher announcing our "out of control brush fire north of Sterling, 500 yards west of 89" over Kentucky's volunteer firefighter pager which was clipped to the visor. The irony didn't escape me.

The location where we started the anthill on a fire was in a little fenced-in area for horses, long-abandoned. There were shed-sized barns off to two sides of it, and an entire field of dry grass separated by only a wire fence. We were on a slight hill, and above us on the hillside was a bunch of sagebrush- even worse, over the crest of the hill was a house. I kept beating away at the flame front spreading out back towards the road, and was actually making a good headway. I got the flaming grass extinguished on that side when Jamie ran past me with the bucket he was using to spread dirt on the fire on the other side of the yard. He was fairly well flipping out at this point.

"This is bad, this is really bad... oh man.."
"Well, we've got it out here, where else is it?"
"Dude, it's up on the hill on the other side of the fence!"

I started to realize the gravity of the situation at this point. While I was busy beating out the fire advancing towards the road I had paid only limited attention to the other locations- I thought the heavy wooden fence lined with feed troughs would contain the fire to the yard while we stopped it from getting out of control outside of it. But no- there was a two-foot gap in the fence where it met one of the sheds, and the fire had spread through it up to the hillside. This fire would not burn itself out. It would only spread. It was already wider than just the two of use could contain, and only growing more quickly. If the sheds started to burn, that was bad news- and if the fire advanced up the hill that was worse news yet. Looking around I saw that the fire had handily spread through the wire fence into the field of dry grass and was advancing much more quickly than I imagined it would.

'Tucky ran off towards the field with his bucket so I ran to the hillside to keep things from going nuts up there. The tin I was using to beat the fire out was now too hot to hold, and I stopped for half a moment frantically racking my brain for how to solve this problem. I tried using a clump of grass to hold onto the tin with, but it just slipped out of my hands and let my fingers be burnt while I tried to move the tin around.

"I need a glove" I said out loud.

Figuring that the situation merited the immodesty, I used the Sprint method to take my shirt off and used it to hold onto the tin. I advanced up the hill putting out fire as a went. The fire I was putting out before was easier because it was just grass on flat ground- the hill was covered in sagebrush. I couldn't pat out the fires around the bases of the sagebrush with the tin, and I couldn't stomp any but the smallest flames there because I was wearing my handy Chacos (sandals). At one point I picked up a sage branch that was burning so I could blow it out and throw it back into the blackened area, but it caught on something and I ended up hitting myself in the forehead with the burning part. I laughed in spite of the situation- I'm sure that in a different context hitting myself in the forehead with a flaming branch would be hilarious. It didn't leave a significant wound. Unable to completely put out the sage, I settled for putting out the perimeter of the fire and trying to keep the brush inside from blazing up so bad that they'd jump the perimeter.

As I was working on this I saw a white Sterling Fire Department pickup rambling through the field between us an the road. Thank God they responded as quickly as they did- it was probably only 10 minutes between my call and their arrival. From my spot on the hillside I could see that the fire was advancing with frightening speed through the dry field that it got into through the wire fence, as well as into the corner of the field of green alfalfa hay on the other side of the shed, which was now surrounded on two sides by fire. We really needed their help. The truck, which was equipped with a big water tank and hose, was unfortunately on the other side of a barbed wire fence. I knew it would take them a few minutes to get to the fire and applied myself to keeping it from advancing up the hillside and the house that stood over the ridge.

I had the perimeter of the fire on the hillside extinguished a few minutes later, but the sagebrushes still kindling inside. With the Sterling FD pickup approaching, I look towards the field below which had become an inferno and decided that if they were going to take over the hillside my efforts would be best spent stomping out the grass fire down there. There were a few hundred feet yet between the field fire and the nearest building, while the hillside fire, although not blazing anymore, presented a significant hazard if it advanced up the hillside, as fires are wont to do.

The fire in the field was a lot more intense than the grass fire I'd put out earlier because the grass was a lot taller. This corresponded to a significantly higher degree of heat. I was somewhat surprised with the degree of success I achieved by stomping out the fire with the tin- but I still had little chance of getting far enough ahead of it to stop it if the Sterling FD brush truck weren't working its way down. I had to be careful with placing the tin before I stomped on it, because if I overshot the amount of fire to put out, stomping the tin would put out the fire underneath but also billow the flame out at my sandal-shod feet, making things worse. I was approaching a bend in the fire line, which meant I got the heat not only from the fire I was putting out right in front of me but also from the side as well. Stomping the tin is up close and personal, right in the fire, and things were starting to get just too hot to stay in the fire. I had to turn away a couple times to keep my still-shirtless top half from getting burnt.

By now the brush truck had the hillside wetted down enough that they could turn their attention towards the field fire, which I had half put out but was failing to make any quick progress on due to my burning-alive problem. The fireman waved me off as he started working the fire on the other side of the fence with the hose, not wanting me to burn myself putting out the fire the hard way when he was able to put it out the easy way in just a minute. At that point I stepped back and looked to see if there were any other flame fronts advancing that I needed to stop. Thankfully, there was nothing blazing anywhere else.  There was plenty of smoldering going on where the fire had been stomped out, but once the blaze in the field was hosed down, the flames would be out, the advance halted, and we could work on making sure it wouldn't start back up anywhere. Around this time, another brush truck arrived from Manti. I had overheard one of the firemen accepting the second truck's aid but waving off a tanker truck- if the firemen were optimistic, so could I be. Seeing that I wouldn't be needing to hold my hot tin anymore, I donned my now-very-smoky shirt again.

The sheds had thankfully not begun to burn, although after we got the flames out we spotted the corner of the roof on one was smoking from under the roofing tin so we peeled that back and hosed it down well. Some of the hay in one of the feed troughs was smoldering as well, so one of the firemen was chopping out the wood and pulling out the hay as another spread it out thin and yet another hosed it down. I asked the fireman who had arrived first (who I later found out was the chief, despite his young appearance) if there was anything else I could do, and he had me get a shovel-pick tool out of the truck and showed me how to dig the sod out from around to base of the shed's wooden wall to make sure no smoldering grass would light the shed up later. While I was doing that, the firemen were wetting everything down with their hose to make sure nothing would flare up again.

Well, the fire was out and the panic was over. While we were winding down the main extinguishment effort, I'd overheard Kentucky kicking himself for lighting the fire in the first place, and claiming responsibility for the fire- he verbally absolved  me of blame for the fire, but in reality I feel a dumb as he does for letting it happen in the first place. Even if I'm not the chief perpetrator, I can't deny that I'm implicitly to blame because I let the stupid mistake happen. While things were winding up and I'd finished digging out around the shed, a fireman named Thomas introduced himself to me and asked me to fill out a voluntary statement of what had happened. While I was writing I wondered if I was incriminating myself, but figured that even if I was justice would be served by it, and being uncooperative probably never helped anybody in my situation anyway. Being the word man that I am (as my mom calls my brothers and me) I filled up the lined area on the page as well as half of the back of the sheet. I was halfway through the statement when I wondered if anyone would be able to read it- my penmanship was especially atrocious because I was writing on the hot hood of a truck with hands made very shaky by the events and exertion of the past hour. When I was done, though, Thomas said he could read it, so I figure I'm alright.

During all this Kentucky was quite worried about the consequences that might land on us as a result of our foolishness- although he insisted that he was the one to be fined if someone were going to be. While I won't argue his claim of primary responsibility, we both acted pretty stupidly and I wouldn't think it unjust if we both got some kind of fine. Thomas, though, reassured us that in a case like this, the fire warden was unlikely to issue any consequence and that because of our cooperation, attitude, and open acceptance of the blame for the fire, he didn't want us to get fined and would pass that impression on to the warden. I think that's as strong as a statement as he could make in his position, really I don't think there any risk at all of me getting one, and only a slight chance for Jamie.

The other thing 'Tucky was doing during the wrap-up was selling rescue equipment. I can't blame him for taking the opportunity, and the firemen were interested in his pitch. An appointment was even set up for a demo. A bit ironic, I think. I'd think it inappropriate if it weren't for the genuine interest and good nature of the firemen. The chief who arrived was smiling and jovial during the whole event, if businesslike during the heat (har har!) of the situation. Generally I'd expect men in such a position to be more severe, especially when dealing with two idiots who lit a field on fire while trying to kill some ants. I offered to re-weld a broken bracket on the Manti brush truck's storage box, and I think they may take me up on it. I can't say I wasn't partly motivated by wanting to make friends with the firemen- after all, friends don't issue fines to each other.

The fireman who was calling in the report to the dispatcher had a laugh with the paperwork- his first radio call named the fire "The Ant Fire" as a temporary moniker until the reports were being written. This was, after all, because the fire got started Well, Thomas (who I think was the senior man on site) saw no reason to rename it, so The Ant Fire it became officially. I gather that's something a bit usual because the firemen all found it entertaining.

Things had pretty well wound down and we were all getting ready to leave, each of us with another fire story (I have a previous one from Alaska I will have to write up sometime) behind us. I snapped some pics of the carnage before we left- check them out:

This is the area I fought first, out the gate from the fenced-in area towards the road.

This is the view over the wire fence that the fire hopped through into the dry field- this is where I was putting out the line of fire when the FD waved me off.

This pic is from about where the anthill was (and IS! With live ants!) looking out the gate. That's the hay we broke out of the feed trough to stop from smoldering- it is all black underneath.

And so you have it, friends- the story of how 'Tucky and I started a brush fire in central Utah. It could have been a bad day, but I see it as another adventure under my belt and a cool story to tell my grandkids. Life without brush fires would be boring. 


  1. Ned, That sounds like quite the adventure. Thanks for sharing... through reading it I felt as if I was there. May God Bless you.