The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on Fire

img_20161102_144452712Fires on farms are catastrophic events. When the farm in question is your homestead, it has the potential to be catastrophic, since both work and home are in danger of being reduced to ash and charred bits of metal.

“Yah bahn’s on fiyha,” my neighbor’s New England accent emanated from the cell phone, muffled by wind and road noise on both ends of the call. I needed him to repeat what he said, while the meaning sank in.

There are some pieces of news that catch you flat-footed; a parent’s death, being laid off from a job, a positive pregnancy test, a Cunha graduating high school. The possibility was always understood, but never really expected.

Grandma fondly recalled the eighth grade as, “My senior year.”

Having grown up in California, I’m well acquainted with wildfires. However, contrary to the widespread rumor, none of them had anything to do with turkey frying mishaps.

img_20161102_144138867_hdrThe upshot of having a significant portion of your farm burnt is you get to meet all your neighbors. People I’ve only seen in passing, and several I didn’t know existed, came from all points of the compass to gawk and shake their heads. I briefly considered charging admission.

The embers smoldered for several days, giving off an ethereal show at night that is likely the closest I will ever get to seeing the Northern Lights in person.

Tallying up the damage was sobering. Half of the hay field was burned, along with burning the undergrowth and saplings in virtually all of the white oak stand at the back of the property. A bunch of fence was destroyed, both by the fire and the firefighting efforts. What really hurt was the loss of my hay barn packed with most of this year’s hay crop.

As it turns out, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Hay is both.

img_20161102_143910623_hdrI pride myself on being a gallows humorist, but make no mistake, there is little to find funny in the ashes. The insurance adjuster must have an appreciation for dark humor, as well, since he didn’t make any notes when I mentioned the barn also contained an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Ark of the Covenant, and several lost Picasso paintings.

With a nod to the sense of humor and understanding of my insurance adjuster, here are my best attempts.

  • Wasn’t there a scene in Bambi like this?
  • We won’t have to worry about deer freeloading from the field for a while.
  • I bet this is what Hell will look like.
  • Mrs. Cunha was disappointed the firefighters bore no resemblance to her calendar.
  • My daughter wanted to know why they didn’t bring a Dalmatian with them.
  • It was a barn-burner of an afternoon.
  • Feel the Bern!

If you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a fire (and I’m pretty sure there is not really a “right” end of a fire to be on), here are five things to keep in mind as you sift through the ashes.

Fire is hot

“No kidding, Fire Marshall Carlos,” you might be telling yourself. What I mean is things that get caught in a fire stay hot for a surprisingly long time. The heat was still noticeable through the soles of my boots when I walked around surveying the damage the next day, and there were still pockets of what I suspect were large roots that were still smoldering just below the surface.

Check buildings and equipment because the heat from a fire radiates a surprising distance. Turn on faucets to ensure the water flows and test underground power lines with a voltmeter. Plastic pipes, wire insulation, and even panes of glass will begin to melt and deform well before combustible items around them show evidence of heat and flame.

Gear up

The natural reaction to this type of catastrophe is to assess the damage. Mrs. Cunha and I were inspecting the losses while trees were still on fire and fence posts were still smoldering. It’s a natural reaction, and for most of us who are not part of the volunteer fire department, gives the property owner something to do besides standing around worrying. I won’t begrudge anyone taking what action they are able, just don’t get yourself in trouble. Take a battle-buddy, take some communication, and leave the damn dog at the house.

Wear your heavy boots, long pants, and gloves. If you’re a Safety Sally, I won’t fault you for taking a hardhat, eye protection, and long sleeves. Wear what you think is appropriate. Taking along a tool like a hoe or a metal rake is a good idea, since you will likely want to pick up or dig out something that I guarantee will be too hot to touch.

Inspect often

You’re first tour through the debris will be overwhelming. Not in the sense that it gives you PTSD (or it might, depending on what you’ve done in life), but fire changes the look of the landscape in such a significant way that the woods I was hunting a few days prior were near unrecognizable. The sights and smells and feel of everything will be alien. It takes a second to process what was a fourteen-foot tall barn when I walked by yesterday is now eight inches high.

The first month, I averaged walking the woods or the field every other day. After that, I poked around the trees a couple times a week for the next month. Each time, I found something new that made my heart sink; another break in the fence, another bulldozer gouge in the hillside, a marketable-size tree charred past use as lumber and now firewood, if I’m lucky. You’ll find something new each sortie for quite a while, so take all the pain now.

No touchy, touchy

Whatever you do while poking around the ruins, keep in mind that you are traipsing around in a crime scene. Well, not really, but kind of. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to do something that jams you up later. Let me explain.

Several different people were inspecting the damage in the course of this whole thing. There was a report from the fire department that included input from the forestry service, three visits by insurance adjusters, contractors for building estimates, and a survey by a certified forester. Starting the clean-up process too soon might very well have affected an accurate calculation of the loss sustained. Do yourself and your pocketbook a favor by suppressing the urge get everything back to normal until everyone who needs to take a look has done so.

Not all is lost

At some point in this process, you will have a solid grasp of the losses. We were lucky. There was no loss of life, people or animals. We lost a structure, some agricultural products, and a bit of future profit. Losing livestock would have been terrible, but losing humans would have been devastating. I have nothing to offer that will help fill the void left by loss of a loved one, but short of that, everything is replaceable. We will amend the field and crops will grow again. Burning out the undergrowth will likely help the trees in the long run.

img_20161225_170713399Heck, seven weeks after the fire, the grass had begun to poke through the charred earth enough to lure a couple of does into the open. I filled my freezer with one of them Christmas afternoon, so maybe there is something good to pluck from this entire mess.

In a spurt of optimism in my prowess as an apex predator and putting aside her pique at me for delaying Christmas dinner for butchering a deer, Mrs. Cunha purchase a stand-up freezer for all the wild game she expected to be dragged back to the house. We didn’t see another deer the rest of the season.

That’s about how life goes.

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The Worst of All the Thieves

Like any self-respecting Southerner, I’m a sucker for fried food; chicken especially, but I’m not particular. Okra, catfish, onion rings, alligator, mushrooms, it doesn’t matter. If it can be dredged in batter and fits into the fryer, it’s fair game for immersion into hot peanut oil.

I’ve tried other types and mixtures of oil, but good old peanut old gives me the best results, even though it’s a little more expensive. Sometimes, you have to grit your teeth and cough up the extra couple of bucks for a quality result.

You have not lived until you have experienced the pure, orgasmic, mouth-joy of biting into a hot, gooey fried Oreo. It’s Granny slappin’ good.

I’m such a fan of fried food that whenever I fry a turkey, an event not necessarily limited to Thanksgiving and Christmas, my wife and I will gather up half a dozen other foodstuff we know respond well to the peanut oil hot tub.

1thief1We also throw in an experimental item or two at the end of the frying session, just for fun. We experiment at the end, as I have been known to ruin a batch of oil trying to fry ice cream. I didn’t realize until it was too late that the ice cream balls had to go straight from the freezer to the fryer after dredging and re-freezing. That’s what I get for trying to wing it.

On the subject of proceeding without instructions, my wife’s wash and dredging recipe is not only delicious, but a closely guarded secret that makes the pains Coca-Cola goes to in guarding their recipe look like posting the information on Wikipedia. This is a secret I suspect my wife will take to her grave, and my only hope to have it passed on to future generations is to catch her at death’s door with a way to record the particulars.

What I do know is that the recipe involves Corn Flakes, some way or another. I know this because whenever we fry chicken, my job is to crush them. I am then promptly shooed out of the kitchen, along with all fourteen kids and the dog. For some reason, she lets the cat stay. The cat must have some high-level, government security clearance of which I am unaware.

I probably sound like Rain Man when my friends ask me about it: “Corn Flakes. Definitely, Corn Flanks. Definitely.”

Fire is a tool to be respected. It warms, lights, and heats, but it can also destroy. The Portuguese have an expression that when translated to English loses a bit of eloquence, but still gets the point across: Fire is the worst of all the thieves because it takes everything and leaves nothing.

1thief4I’ve dealt with many a fire as a first responder, a volunteer firefighter, as part of a group of local residents who show up with our gear because a wildfire is coming close to our houses, and as the guy who once accidentally set a dumpster on fire because the charcoal briquettes were not completely extinguished.

And luckily, I’ve never had to deal with a fire more serious than an alternator fire in my dad’s Suburban (not my fault. It just happened to be my turn to drive), setting a half-inch drill on fire (kinda my fault), and severely scorching the kitchen cabinets from igniting a toaster while using it as a cooking surface for a grilled cheese sandwich (most definitely, my fault).

My aunt Rose, on the other hand, experienced two garage fires in three years. The second fire completely destroying the structure, and both ruined all the contents, including a fairly new model Corvette, each time.

Aunt Rose loved her Corvette, but was clearly unaware of the vehicle’s ability to accept fresh tires because she seemed to get a new one about the time the tread depth passed Lincoln’s hairline.

The more suspicious minded of you might be wondering how the second fire looked to a fire investigator or insurance adjuster.

1thief3And you’d be right, not in the criminality aspect, but in the suspicion. Quite honestly, my aunt Rose isn’t smart enough to be able to lie, and she was horrified at the prospect someone in a position of authority thinking she would orchestrate an insurance fraud torch-job, but it looked suspicious, even to a twelve-year-old.

Of course, I had an understanding of how a simpleton going about life can wind up in the damnedest situations. Just for the sake of argument, say you’re a dumb Portagee kid of about eleven or twelve trying to light the barbecue. Back then, a gas grill was a high-end luxury item powered by propane and hundred dollar bills, according to my mother.

If charcoal was good enough for pioneers and cavemen, then it was good enough for the Cunha household, as long as there was no less expensive option. I’m surprised I wasn’t expected to grill burgers over a campfire stoked with two-by-fours stripped from the abandoned house down the street, like some hobo in a train yard.

You learn an awful lot about yourself trying to cook with the Kingsford. Things like how far you can flick a lit, wooden match. You learn how long you can blow on a stack of black rocks with your head immersed in lighter fluid fumes before you become dangerously lightheaded. You learn that much like a kettle, a watched pile of briquettes never turns grey.

One thing I didn’t learn until years later is that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing.

You also learn that gasoline is significantly different from charcoal lighter fluid in terms of flammability…or inflammability. Take your pick.

It turns out that the fumes are the dangerous part of gasoline because they are what actually burn. They are also heavier than air, spread out from the source, and have a tendency to pool.

Try as I might, I have never been able to ignite gasoline with cigarette, even when said coffin nail is lit. Myth Busters investigated the movie lore of the Slow Motion Cigarette Flick and confirmed what I had figured out at thirteen years old (yes, I started smoking at twelve or thirteen. My lung still feels fine).

1thief2As the flame flowed up the stream of gasoline from the barbecue to the metal canteen cup in my hand, it dawned on me there must have been a flame hidden in the briquette pile. You would be surprised how cool a flaming quart of gasoline in an aluminum cup burns. You can actually hold on to it, which is a good thing because it gives time for reflection on the series of poor decisions that let up to that moment.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of men; calm and panicky. On realization of holding enough burning gasoline to fill a Big Gulp, a panicky man will drop the container, with the result being a sheet of flame spreading in all directions. A calm man will set the aluminum chalice on the ground and let it burn itself out.

This would have been a better story if I were the panicky sort.

1thief5Speaking of finding yourself in a burning ring of fire (my apologies to Johnny Cash), did you know that the propane flame coming out of the burner of an outdoor turkey fryer will ignite peanut oil as it overflows the pot when you miscalculate the turkey volume? It will leave a literal ring of fire on the patio and make you reconsider putting that fire extinguisher back on the shelf at Home Depot because you didn’t want to spend thirty-five dollars for a good ABC-rated fire putter outer.

Peanut oil is both flammable and inflammable. Knowledge is power.

I’m not saying that a little flaming cooking oil in the middle of a twenty by twenty cement slab is a reason to go all Backdraft, but the nature of fire emergencies is they get out of hand very quickly. Quite counter-intuitively, most fires start off as fairly piddling affairs and can be put out with relative ease. It’s the delay in action rummaging around in the garage for the only fire extinguisher you own that allows the situation to get out of hand.

Fire is the worst sort of thief, so keep a few fire extinguishers handy. At minimum, one each in the kitchen and garage. I mean big ol’ honkin’ suckers. The sort that you grunt when you pick them up. I keep a fire extinguisher in my bedroom based on the concern I am woken up to a fire going on and can’t get to one of the other ones or need it fight my way out.

I would even recommend keeping one in the barn, workshop, and any other outbuilding because delay is what allows a few small flames to become a conflagration.

Fire is the worst kind of thief.