Considering the prevalence of unexpected fire in my numerous antics, it surprises me that the fire department has only intervened twice. What surprises me more, however, is that it wasn’t helpful on either occasion.
In general I like to think that I practice good fire safety–I certainly told my wife that after I confessed to teaching our toddler about matches–but the evidence is against me, and not just because of that matches story. For example, I keep locking myself in a room and then accidentally building a fire between myself and the only exit. While naked. (Yes, I’ve done this several times. Yes, I’m always surprised when it ends badly for me.)
My explanations usually end with a self-conscious shrug and one of the most common phrases in my life: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Clearly my idea evaluation mechanism has a few bugs in it. However, I contend that my first fire truck story stems from an idea that seems good even in retrospect. (To me at least, which may not be a rousing endorsement.)
A few months before my brother married, he bought a house in the suburbs of the tropical metropolis where he worked. It was the sort of bargain purchase that’s usually accompanied by cheerful sounding references to handymen and opportunity, but which normal folk refer to as “messy” and perhaps “ramshackle.” (Not enough normal folk say “ramshackle,” in my opinion.) He recruited my entire family to help him renovate.
I was a teenager at the time–lazy, irresponsible, scatterbrained, too big for my own good–so my help was limited mostly to lifting, lugging, and piling large quantities of yard waste. Thus, I found myself in the unique position of having my parents instruct me to gather sundry flammable items, items which nobody wanted anymore and which no one would miss. I’m pretty sure that they meant for me to put everything into garbage bags, and then to stack those bags by the roadside for eventual removal, but they couldn’t have made a bonfire more likely without giving me matches and gasoline.
I heaped broken branches and rotting boards onto my brother’s driveway until I had a suitable base, and then lit it, figuring that my day had just improved dramatically. From that point forward I didn’t mind hefting garbage and debris, because all I saw was fuel. I made flames taller than all of the surrounding houses, most of which were up on stilts. I was never so proud again until my daughter was born.
Of course, what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was also learning a very important lesson: asphalt burns vigorously. Because my brother’s house was somewhat removed from town, the previous owner had decided to pave a driveway for himself using asphalt instead of the more common concrete. When I built my bonfire, I unwittingly stacked combustible material on top of a reservoir of the same. Or, to put it another way, I accidentally helped my brother cure his property of its pesky driveway infestation.
I also helped him meet his neighbors, most of whom apparently assumed that towering infernos were cause for concern, not giddy dancing. (In this they differed from me.) Then I helped him meet the local fire fighters, whom those neighbors had summoned. Unfortunately, that latter introduction didn’t go smoothly.
With wailing sirens and an accompanying spectacle of lights, the fire fighters arrived in a massive tanker truck, poised for battle against their nefarious arch-nemesis. As sometimes happens though, their nemesis vanquished them with the help of an unexpected henchman: poor-planning. The fire fighters had neglected to fill the truck’s tank with water.
They had the hoses, the helmets, the smashing hefty coats, and the bright red axes; they didn’t have water. They could have shielded my fire from itself, guarded it against head injury, and freed it from a wooden room (assuming it needed help with that for some reason), but they couldn’t put it out.
After a moment spent conferring, possibly to draw straws to determine who would approach us, one of the burly men sheepishly asked my brother if he had a garden hose that they might borrow.
Lesson two of the day? Garden hoses don’t have enough water pressure to extinguish a raging, oil-enhanced, trash fire. All of the water turned to steam several feet away. I practically beamed. In retrospect, the fire fighters seemed more surprised by this outcome than they ought to have been.
Eventually they withdrew in defeat, enjoining us to keep the hose pointed at the fire for a few more hours. It took about six hours for the fire to go out completely. The water in the hole it mad didn’t stop boiling until later that evening.
Oddly, my second fire truck experience also involves my brother, and happened as he was moving away from that tropical metropolis. It’s as though the fire fighters, who had welcomed him to the area, also wanted to bid farewell to him. More on that soon.