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A Great Day For a Grass Fire

Sunday was a great day for a grass fire.

No, not that kind of grass, although wildland fires can make your day go to pot.It's that time of year. People get cabin fever, and at the drop of a match they're using any excuse to get outside, and fire is cool. (It's not really cool, it's hot. Just wanted to clarify.) Fence rows, weedy hills, brush piles, trash, unruly lawns, meth labs, unwanted relatives, whatever. And they inevitably say, if only to themselves, one of three things:

1. "What could possibly go wrong?"

    (A phrase that has become such a cliche that anyone who thinks it should automatically be horsewhipped. Do they still make horsewhips? Maybe in Amish country.)

2. "I'll be right back--this will only take a minute."

    (See above comment.)

3. "I've got it under control."

We once pulled up to a field fire that was burning around three sides of a house. When we knocked on the door to alert the occupants, this guy opened up and told us it was a controlled burn, and the fire department wasn't needed. He was wearing a towel.

    Yes, he'd been in the bathtub.

This is not the definition of a controlled burn.

In northern Indiana, things don't get nearly as bad as out west--just bad enough. Wildland fire season (it's usually ground fires: fields or woods) lasts for a couple of months, from the time the snow melts until all the foliage greens up enough so it won't burn. We sometimes have another fire season in the fall, and if a drought strikes all bets are off. But the problem in the spring is that the ground is often still saturated from snow melt, so much so that even four wheel drive fire trucks can't go off road, which is fine if there's nothing off road that can be damaged or is, say, in the path of the fire. At the same time, people think "Hey--if the ground's so wet, the fire won't spread. I've got it under control!"

Meanwhile, one inch above that wet ground, anything that's been dead since last fall dries out after about an hour of sun and breeze. I've seen six foot flames burning over standing water in swamps. That's me on the other side, waiting on the shore for it to get to me ... I've seen all those SyFy movies with mutated alligators.

I'll be over here.

So I looked at the weather forecast last week and realized the next day would be perfect for what we call grass fires. (At least until they get to other stuff; then we call them house fires, barn fires, car fires, unwanted relative fires, whatever.) It would be a Sunday, sunny, with a temperature in the low fifties. There would be just enough of a breeze to spread fire, but not enough to make people worry about it. We're a small town volunteer fire department, and we still once made 17 calls in one day under those conditions.

Grass fires spreading to cars are pretty common. Boats, not so much ... but as you can see, it happens.

So, instead of the pajama pants I usually wear around the house (days off equal writing time on the couch), I put on jeans--and socks, and since it was only in the low fifties, a sweatshirt. I put my shoes right in front of the couch. The keys were on the ledge by the front door, the car backed in to allow for a quick entrance, my pager on my belt. As busy as my life's been lately, it's probably the most prepared I've been for a call in ten years.

Then I listened, as surrounding departments started getting called out. Kendallville FD, grass fire; Cromwell FD, grass fire; Noble Township FD, grass fire; Avilla FD, grass fire; Ligonier FD, car-pedestrian accident.

Ah, the unexpected.

Also unexpected: The Albion Fire Department, with is 96 square mile, mostly rural response area, didn't get called out at all that day.

I'm thinking of renting myself out as a fire prevention tool. You pay me ahead of time, and I'll show up at your firehouse fully dressed, with my fire gear beside me, ready to accompany you to a fire at an instant's notice. Then, there will be no fire. I'll get money, your community will remain safe, and if nothing else I'll get some quality reading time. (I'm reading American Gods at the moment.)

What could possibly go wrong?

Just a grass fire? When crops like wheat catch on fire it does honest to goodness financial harm.

The aftermath. It was totally under control, then came the running and the panic and the 911 calls.

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