Fighting Our Own Fires, and Why It\'s Best Not to Have To...



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This is the long version of a comment I posted to a forum discussion about fire protection, where someone observed, "Our local fire department is famous for saving basements."

Our local fire department used to save a lot of basements too. I'd say to anyone in that situation, get busy making it better.

In my teen years our neighbors' house caught fire. Young adults saved older adults and a few valuables while children ran to our house to report the fire--phone already being gone. Dad dispatched my brother to summon all our young adult relatives nearby and specifically said "Don't call X--remind people not to--he's supposed to keep off his ankle." I was ordered to keep the children out of the way and comfort them as much as possible. We saw the house explode, the power lines go down in fireworks. We saw the power company shut them off so it was safe to fight the fire. We saw the V.F.D. say "With a natural spring box like that, no pump, there's nothing we can do," and wimp out.

Meanwhile Dad growled at my brother, "Who called X?" and X's son was standing nearby and said, "No one did. He saw me drive by and not stop, so he followed me."

As the V.F.D. left the scene some of the cousins were saying "If there's nothing they can do..." and the disabled grandfather was saying "A fire will spread," and even Drill Sergeant Dad was sort of hesitating to take the lead in either direction. In Virginia most fires don't spread because the land is too well watered, but occasionally it's dry enough that forest fires can start, and that had been a dry autumn. Then X started limping toward the stream.

Naturally nobody was going to leave the fire before X did. Nobody wanted to see him aggravate his injury, and nobody had any natural authority to tell him to go home. The only thing to do was form a bucket brigade and minimize the actual walking he was determined to do.

The house was already past hope; it was a question of saving the woods, the barn, maybe neighbors' houses...but there were just enough concerned neighbors to do that. We fought that fire for five hours. (It was the first time my brother and I had ever been allowed to do anything alongside the adults, as the equals we thought we were because we were five feet tall, and the best adventure we'd ever had; well worth burning the soles out of our boots.) We saved the barn and the animals. We learned about not panicking and doing what works in case of fire.

X has walked with a limp ever since then, but he limps with pride. Dad was always the big strong (polio survivor) alpha male in any crowd. Just once X, who was smaller and older and generally a beta male, was "stronger" and "smarter" than Dad was.

And chimney caught fire a few years ago. I'd been cooking on that wood stove for most of fifty years and become overconfident. I smelled smoke, saw flames inside the wall, reflexively switched off the main electrical circuit breaker and started sloshing and stomping and beating. A neighbor passed by, and I asked him to climb up on the roof, since the ladder was just a bit too short for me, and make sure the attic was good and wet. Call the V.F.D.? I didn't think they'd come out, but it'd be cool if they did, while he was sloshing bottles of water on the attic.

They did come out. They were able to connect their new truck to the stream and blast water onto the roof. That was a good thing, because by this time the fire had just started to spread into the electrical wiring, and the house could have gone up in a roar the way those neighbors' house had done if the fire department had come ten minutes later. The main electrical cable to the kitchen is still dangling out of the hole in the wall.

As things were, I've not rebuilt the chimney or rewired that part of the house yet, due to poverty, and I'm still mulling whether to replace the burnt-out chunk of wall, but the house is still livable; the electricity even works in the new part of the house.

Volunteer fire departments: when wrong, to be put right. Tall strong people are naturally better fire fighters than the rest of us, which is why V.F.D.s will take only men, only between ages 18-35 and over 5'10", if they can afford to choose. But everybody can and should learn to fight a fire.

If you're over 35 and under 5'10", y'never know, a day may come when that just might be what allows you to save a building.

Or you could concentrate on helping your local V.F.D. get the equipment and training they need so the brawny young men can do a better job. Bake sales, bingo my town Friday Market booth rental fees are donated to the fire department.

Which is why, although neither books nor handmade textiles are really suited to open-air markets, I've not missed a chance to lug a load of merchandise into the Friday Market since.

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