Spontaneous Combustion

Every year for the last decade we have had a bonfire with our burn pile – the year’s worth of cut brush, lumber ends, old fence posts, what have you. This year, we invited our whole bodywork class over to the house to share the experience, which is warming, satisfyingly dramatic with leaps of flame and billowing smoke burning down to mud and ashes. It’s a good oven for conversation, and a great outdoor project for small boys like me.

We got the permit in the morning, but by the afternoon we had a sharpish southwest breeze. Quan’s brother Jerome opined that the wind was a bit high for burning, but the pile was under the crest a bit so the wind was lower, we had this group coming over, and I’m a pyrophiliac, so I decided to start it anyway.

We had shovels and rakes, a water hose and plenty of people, but someone (a visiting fireman, literally) saw the flames and smoke from the road and called it in as an out-of-control fire. The fire trucks pulled up, with guys (and one woman) piling out in full gear. They clearly like doing the fireman thing, and they are very serious about it.

There was a long palaver of truck beeps while they hooked up the hoses down to the fire, which they unceremoniously doused to nothing. The stumps and branches stopped mid-burn, now a pile of sad and sodden black alligators and snakes, the rippled skin of the half-burned. It took a while for all crackling and steam / smoke to go still; the fire was just at its zenith when they arrived.

At first I was really annoyed at this unwarranted ‘government interference’ – we had the fire under control and it’s been raining for three days – but then I relaxed into it, watching the process as the four of them fulfilled their bounden duty. Still, they had little to say to me – they counted their curtailed Saturday afternoon as my fault, I guess.

We let all the gathered students – who were up on the porch, cold in the wind with no fire to warm them – into the house and changed plans to a music evening, which got under way in earnest when the fire trucks and their sour adherents had left. I gave ‘em a few beers, but I think they wanted thanks I was not prepared to offer.

It began to rain in earnest when the sun fell, so we will have to delay the bonfire and the fire-eating we were going to try for another evening – the best-laid plans of mice and men…

This morning a forest ranger showed up with her grey hair tied back in a ponytail and a smart uniform, and gave me a summons to appear in court. The problem that leads to the legal action was not the fire being out of control, but the hour I started it – 2pm. Apparently, you aren’t supposed to start until 5, as the volunteer fire department is away at work during the day – who knew? It was in the fine print.