After Burner – The Lesson

By Jan Verhoeff
I remember one afternoon, my husband handed me the weed burner and told me to call one of the hired men and have him come help me burn out the corrals. They’d been vacant for several years and tumble weeds had filled them up fence-top high, filling the inside of the sheds, and binding up the fence rows. I mentioned that I’d never burned weeds before. I even reminded him that I was seven months pregnant and not moving so fast as I should be to do such a task, and pointed out that the girls would be there all afternoon and I needed to keep an eye on them. He responded that we could only afford to hire one man to help me with that project, and to get started while I waited for him to arrive.

I started the weeds in the corral nearest the house on fire, since the wind was blowing somewhat away from the house, and there wasn’t much of it. I figured the pasture wouldn’t burn, because it was bare. Safe direction, right?

An hour in, the weeds were smoldering and the hired hand hadn’t yet made it to the site. The girls had fallen asleep in the back seat of the car, and everything was still going good. I lit the weeds in the shed on fire, and watched the flames leap high through the metal that covered the roof, some random twigs caught fire, but went out shortly after, and still the fire was contained within the corrals.

Two hours in, the fence on the downwind side of the corral was still standing, scorched a bit, but not burning, and the weeds growing around the edge of the pasture had started to smolder and go down in big blackened tangled masses. I watched as the smolder crept into the edge of the pasture and most of it smothered out on the greener buffalo grasses that grew low to the ground. The barbed wire cattle fence along the north end of the property had captured blowing tumble weeds and a small portion of the fire caught there, grew up in high flames, and smothered low to smolder in the fence row.

With more than five acres charred black from the burn, and low smoldering fires along the edge burning out, I noticed clouds building on the horizon, and felt the first sprinkles of rain.

The hired man still hadn’t appeared, but with the rain drops, the smoldering edges sending up dark gray steam, and most of the fire gone out, I felt safe to step away from the fire for a moment and check on the girls, before I went inside to grab a bottle of water for my parched throat. I took time for a potty break, grabbed the water and heard the door slam against the wall, as the wind picked up. Outside, the hired man was just arriving in his old pick up truck and he looked out at the flames shooting against the wind on the downward side of the burn.

“Let’s get that out!” I screamed, realizing if it picked up with the wind, we’d be caught in a back fire.

In those few minutes while I was inside, the wind had stirred up the smoldering embers and scattered them across the prairie, igniting more than thirty small fires over the closest 20 acres of the half section of ground. I don’t know if it was the horrifying scream of my six year old daughter, pointing at her toddler sister walking toward the closest fire, or the realization that there were only two of us, and we had no access to water to put the fires out. I grabbed the toddler and scrambled for the house, the phone, and the fire department.

By the time they arrived less than five minutes later, much of the top forty acres was charred, burned, and smoldering as the sprinkling rain became a torrential sheet of water splattering across the burned buffalo grasses.

The fire chief asked if I’d gotten a burn permit, and I said, I didn’t know I needed one. He said, “Your husband should have taken care of that before he told you to burn. I’ll check on it tomorrow.” He patted me on the back, and walked away.

The reason that moment stands out in my mind may not be as important as the lesson I learned. When someone tells you to do something that you wouldn’t normally do, and the instinct in your gut says, “No.” Listen to your gut, no matter how much the other person wants the job done. Your gut, your conscience, will guide you straighter than any other single person, when your life, and your children’s lives are in danger. Trust your own instincts.

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