Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Trial By Fire!

Feb 22, 2007

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though (our possessions) be removed, . . . Psalms 46: 1,2

This morning I got up around 8:00 at the usual time, a little later than I should have. The sun was up and it appeared to be a nice day in the making, the second day in a row with much warmer weather than we had been having. Much of the icy snow had melted off the fields and I was looking forward to getting back to laying up the cinder block wall on the packing shed building we had started building during the Christmas holidays. I went out to the garage to check the furnace as my first chore of the day. I had not put any logs on since around noon yesterday and the fire was out cold. I figured I could leave the furnace shut down today so I switched off the circulator pump. One partially burned piece remained in the firebox so I decided to remove it. It appeared to be completely out with no sign of smoke or glowing embers so I tossed it across the wood pile stacked along the west side of the open lean to shed attached to the garage. (I have no idea why I would have done anything so stupid!)

The chickens would need to be moved today so I had made sure to close the doors to their shelter the night before so I could do it first thing in the morning. I would need to warm the engine block on the diesel tractor in order to start it, so I plugged in the engine block heater and went inside for breakfast. I would need to give the tractor some time to warm up so I killed some time after breakfast making some phone calls and studying a supply catalog I had picked up yesterday at a soils management workshop. Around 10:00 I fired up the tractor and went out to move the chickens. This involved taking down the electronet fence surrounding the shelter, pulling the shelter with the tractor to a fresh location in the field, reassembling the fence, and moving feeders and waterers to the new location. Normally this task takes about 15-20 minutes. This morning it took me at least forty five minutes as it was difficult to push the fence stakes into the still partially frozen ground.

As I was working I noticed a small wisp of smoke in front of the hoop house. There is a 50 gallon drum sitting there which Christine often uses to burn kitchen trash. The smoke appeared to be coming from the barrel so I was not alarmed. I finished the job and came back in on the tractor. Normally I would have parked the tractor at its usual spot between the fuel tank at the northern edge of the woodshed and a small Ford tractor parked about 15 feet away. This morning I parked it behind the hoop house as I intended to carry fresh feed and water to the chickens, and then go back out on the tractor to feed hay to the cattle. The wind had picked up a lot in the previous half hour and was blowing hard from the west. As I walked around the back of the hoop house and turned the corner towards the woodshed I suddenly found myself looking with horror at a good sized fire at the base of the wood pile blowing into the pile with the force and intensity of a gigantic blowtorch!

My first impulse was to grab the garden hose, turn on the water hydrant nearby, and try to extinguish the blaze but it already was looking pretty hot so I quickly decided to dash around to the front of the house to warn Christine first. I burst through the front door and barked, “Christine, call the fire department immediately!! We’ve got a fire in the woodshed!!” I dashed back around to the woodpile to find the fire engulfing the entire pile. I turned on the water hose but quickly realized as the intense heat drove me backwards that I had already lost it. With the fire roaring into the garage attic I frantically dashed back to the front. I flew through the door and shouted to Christine (she was just getting off the phone) as I grabbed my guitar off the sofa with my right hand and Han’s guitar off the rocking chair with my left, “We don’t have much time!!” As smoke poured into the hallway, Christine dove under the desk to retrieve the safe box containing our most important papers and her pocketbook. “Let’s get out of here!!!” I shouted above the roar of the fast approaching fire storm. I threw our things into the back seat of the car as Christine jumped behind the wheel and sped down the driveway to safety. (We would later discover the tail light lenses warped and blistered from the gathering heat.)

Things were beginning to go “Boom!” in the now fully engulfed garage as I headed down to the bottom of the lane to where our next door neighbor and pastor, Ric Gullman and Christine were gathering. We looked up to see the plastic melted loose and blowing up from the house side of the hoop house and the Ford Taurus parked in front of the garage in full blaze. Christine asked with concern in her voice, “Shouldn’t you move the tractor farther away?” I took a circuitous route up the hill to move the tractor, ducking low to avoid the immense cloud of black smoke billowing a few feet above my head. As I returned I saw two more neighbors, Roberta Moore (hereafter known as “Bert”) hugging Christine, and Brandon Davis watching. Christine, Bert, and Brandon then walked up towards the burning house and began removing plants from the far end of the small greenhouse located a few feet from the south end of the house. Ric walked up and we began talking. A few minutes later Bert walked past me and I heard her say, “Dust Bunny has exploded!”

The next scene will be etched forever in my mind. I briefly shifted my gaze from the house fully engaged in fire to see Bert’s prized eight months pregnant mare lying dead in front of her barn, guts spilt out on the ground, and a trail of blood leading across the yard from the fence line and sharpened post where she had apparently disemboweled herself in her panicked flight to escape the dense billowing cloud hurtling through their pasture paddock and towards the horse barn. I would later learn that Bert had seen the stricken horse shortly after she had gotten out of her car and, realizing that there was nothing she could do for the horse, came on up to help us get the plants moved to the redbud bush on the far side of the yard. Minutes later a piece of flaming roof debris landed on the ground beside the greenhouse, buckling the bows with the heat and cooking the remaining flats of plants inside. By now the fire trucks were arriving and we had to move all of our cars farther up the road to make room for them.

News people arrived and began plying me for information. Bert returned with her digital camera and offered it to me to record the terrible scene. I was in no shape at the moment to concentrate on operating unfamiliar technical instruments so she graciously took some pictures. The fire marshal came up to interview me and the two of us walked around the rear to where the fire had started. At first I was bewildered at how the fire had started and could only offer two possible theories—spontaneous combustion or a spark from the burning trash barrel. Neither of these theories is plausible as stacked wood is generally not known to spontaneously combust in the winter time and the trash barrel was down wind and a distance from the source of the fire. Then I remembered the piece of charred wood I had chucked out. The 50 mile per hour winds that came up an hour later had evidently found a spark of life in that dead piece of charred wood. (I would later learn that Christine had not burned any house trash this morning.)

By now the community news grapevine was abuzz. Ric’s wife Joy was on the phone calling family and church friends. Craig Good, son in law to my eldest daughter Celia, was the first to arrive and help the firemen to hook up fire hoses. Celia called second daughter Rhonda and gave us the word that she and Kerwin would get here tonight. My son Hans called from Berea Kentucky that he would be here before morning. One of my brothers heard the call on his emergency scanner, came to the scene, and began calling out to my extended family on his cell phone. Joy brought a bowl of vegetable soup which I could hardly eat. Bert returned from burying her dead horse to assure us that we would have a place to sleep at her house tonight. Several other neighbors from farther down the road, some of whom I had never met, came by to offer help. One called Craig to tell us that he had an unoccupied house about a mile from us that we could rent.

Several hours later the fire was under control and firemen gave us permission to carefully enter the now gutted structure and to begin recovering a few salvageable items. One fireman handed me my soaked but otherwise undamaged wallet which he had found somewhere in the rubble. They had gotten most of the fire out before it had had time to settle into the basement so we would be able to recover some furniture, clothing, and greenhouse supplies from that area. Now the mop up phase of the operation was underway as the firemen sprayed fire retardant foam all over the burned area. As the late afternoon daylight began to wane we crept through the ankle deep foam, which lay over the charred debris like a ghostly shroud, and gazed into the familiar rooms to view the vestiges of what had been our personal possessions. Out in the garage and shop area laid the sagging hulks of the market van, a car, the four wheeler, and a riding lawn mower. Several freezers and refrigerators, the wood furnace, and a diesel fuel tank teetered like mottled blackish-gray tombstones covered with snow. The Ford tractor sat at a crazy angle just outside the perimeter of the enshrouded area with the tires burned off the rims on the side nearest the fire. It was a truly surreal scene!

One of my first cousins, Raleigh Rhodes, drove up and suggested that we find a hammer and nails and some scrap wood, to temporarily fasten down the hoop house plastic now flapping in the wind. As we worked in the deepening twilight the topic came up. “What happened to the cat and her half grown kitten?” We both agreed that since we had not heard or seen them around, that they had most likely perished. “Meow”. Was it my imagination? “Meow” No, it can’t be! “Meow” Yes, maybe it can be! “Meow” Yes, no doubt about it! But where is it coming from? Over in the calf hutch! I ran over and peered into the darkness amidst boxes, empty milk crates, and rolls of used drip tape. “Meooow” I reached with my hand like a blind man, groping with my fingers into the darkness, feeling beside and under a pallet until I touched a bundle of rough damp fur. I gently lifted it out. The little fellow had most of its hair singed off and he pulled his front feet up and down painfully under his quivering body. “Meooow!” My first thought was that Bert had a compassion for animals and would gladly nurture it back to health. But Raleigh insisted that his 12 year old daughter would be eager to do it also. I sent Smokey with him.

We have just gotten back from eating supper at Craig and Celias. I still did not feel like eating much and felt it wise not to push myself to eat. I am exhausted and feel myself at the point of collapse. Running all day on adrenaline has been a new experience and it is causing strange sensations in my body and mind. We are at Bert’s now and trying to sleep. Sleep will not come! The emotional fires that have been searing my guts all day are still smoldering deep within. If someone were to offer me a shot of valium or whisky at this moment I would almost take it. But it is much better that I don’t have this crutch to lean on. I just need to rest and heal. I try to visualize Jesus standing by the bed with his warm hand on my burning stomach and chest. Oh God! Can you reach down and touch me with some healing balm? Finally I drift into a few hours of fitful sleep.
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