This is starting to look dreadfully like 2006, when over a million acres (the state of Rhode Island is 700,000 acres) burned and over a dozen people died in the fires or in wrecks caused by smoke across the road. As of writing this, seven people have died in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, three of them on one ranch when they were trapped by flame as they tried to save some cattle. The flames move with the wind, and when the wind gusts over fifty miles an hour, you can’t outrun the flame front.
It sounds silly. Grass burning. Grass is knee high at best, right? A forest fire, that’s serious, but grass? And brush, that’s bushes and things, easy to get around and spray with water. Except it isn’t, and large parts of the Canadian River Breaks don’t have roads where the fire departments need them right now. And it is windy, and terribly dry with dew points in the single digits. We had a good, damp winter and fall, so there is a lot of grass and brush that has been curing in the wind since the last rains around February 14th. All it needs is a spark from a downed power line, or train brakes, or a hot car exhaust, or a ciggy butt tossed out the window and carried into the grass, and disaster flares, hot and black and deadly.
The people of the Tri-State area will get through this, as we always do. Already funds are being raised for the families of the dead, supplies are being collected for those fighting the fires and those who have lost homes, cattle and horses, pastures. I have a personal connection to the Perryton-Ochiltree Fire because John Erickson, of Hank the Cowdog, lost his home. I know Mr. Erickson both professionally and through a good friend and mentor of mine who is one of Mr. Erickson’s relatives. The son of a family friend is a volunteer fireman in the eastern Panhandle and got called out Monday and Tuesday.
When you walk outside your house at dawn and smell smoke, and when you see ash from a fire fifteen miles away floating in the outdoor critter-water dish, or oddly black dust on your windowsill, the fires affect you, too. The hazy sky, the faint whiff of char in the wind…
To paraphrase John Donne, ask not for whom the fire-bell rings. It rings for thee.