Today started like any other day. I got up around 10, dozed on and off for a while, and got out of my tent around 11. I had some left over carrot cake for breakfast, then started locking things up to go to town. I left my property a little after noon, made a stop at the local library, then headed on towards Redding.
In Burney, I started noticing people milling about by the road, on camping chairs, holding American flags. It didn’t take me long to realize that they were probably waiting for their boy, who, as I mentioned in a previous post was killed in Afghanistan, to come home. Based on flag toting folks lining the road, I figured the remains were being flown into Redding, and would be driven back to Burney on the same highway I was on.
Lance Corporal Tyler Roads, USMC, died just shy of his 21st birthday. The kid couldn’t legally drink yet, and he died in a foreign country that most of his country men (and women) can’t even place on a map. I wish I could honestly believe that he died for a good cause, but I don’t think I can. Afghanistan, nor, for that matter, is Al Qaeda, a threat to our nation. There was a sign in Burney that said “Thank you for freedom.” Tyler didn’t die for freedom. Al Qaeda can not destroy American freedom. The Department of Homeland Security has done more harm to our freedom than Al Qaeda. Terrorists can destroy lives and property, but they can not take away our core principles; at least not any more effectively than our own government could, and has.
No, Tyler died because we failed him. We sent him to a place we never should have gone, and after we did, he died because we failed to bring him home in time. It’s easy to blame the politicians and the military-industrial complex. But last I checked, this nation is still a democracy, which means we, the people, are responsible for what it does. When men and women in uniform die on foreign soil, it’s because we sent them there. We, not they. The reality is, if the draft were in place, this war would’ve ended years ago. If it were my ass, and my friends’ lives on the line, we would’ve filled the streets in protest until the war ended, the way they did 40 years ago. But we didn’t, and the dying continues, because it’s kids like Tyler Roads of Burney, CA (pop. 3500), who are doing the fighting and dying. Tyler wasn’t killed in action; he was killed by our inaction.
Several miles out of Burney, I saw the motorcade approaching. I pulled off the road, and stopped. As the hearse passed by, I took off my hat out of respect, and all I could think was “Sorry Tyler, we failed you. We failed to give you the future you deserved.”
My phone rang while I was browsing the shelves at Harbor Freight in Redding, my first of many planned stops. On the other end was my neighbor’s granddaughter.
“Yo, what’s up?” I asked. She replied with unintelligible yelling, then calmed down enough to tell me that there was a fire and that I should come down with all the water I could. I told her I was in Redding, and asked her if it was bad. She said their travel trailer (that my neighbor’s living out of) and truck were burning. It was “bad, bad, bad.” I told her I’ll get there as quickly as I could.
After I hung up, I stood there for a minute, considering my next move. For some reason, I don’t freak out when other people do. I’m not a particularly confident person, and have my share of anxious moments, but the more other people freak out about something, the calmer I get. I don’t know what it is.
I wasn’t done with everything I wanted to do in town. But then, most of the things I wanted to do related to my property one way or another, and if my property was going to be burnt down, none of the things on my list would matter. On the other hand, I knew it would take me at least an hour and a half to get back to my property. By then, the fire would either be under control, and whatever damage had been done would have been done, or the fire would be wildly out of control, and there would be nothing I could do.
So, I did the two things I did need to do: I filled up my tank with gas, and I went to pee. Then I headed back towards my property, driving as fast as I safely could.
My neighbor’s call had left open more questions than they had answered. I tried to fill in the blanks as I drove. My primary concern was, of course, my own property (yeah, I’m a great neighbor, huh). I instantly thought of the camp fire I’d had two days ago and never properly smothered. Could it have rekindled, then lit my property on fire? It seemed unlikely. Could it have then burned down hill towards their property? It seemed even less likely. They also said their truck was burning, which means they were around when the fire started. If they saw a fire from my property burning towards them, they almost certainly would’ve taken the truck. Besides, if they thought the fire started on my property, she wouldn’t have called me to come help them. So it seemed likely that the fire had started on their property. But, how could a fire start and spread so quickly if they were around? How were they not able to save the truck? Or by “truck” did she mean the quad (ATV)? If so it was conceivable the fire had started while they were in town, and found their trailer and quad burning when they returned? But I was pretty sure she wouldn’t confuse the truck and the quad. I knew they had cans of gas laying around. Could one of them have caught fire? In any case, I tried to assess how likely it was that a fire from their property would spread to mine. My property was up hill from them. But then, there’s a nice wide road between my property and theirs, and it’d be difficult for a fire to jump that. Furthermore, prevailing winds blew from my property to theirs, or at least perpendicular, so it seemed unlikely a fire on their property would get to mine. Then I considered how likely it was that a fire on my property coming from that direction would do damage to my camp. It would have to burn through the 400 yard distance between their camp and mine, past and around my garden, then burn through an area that I’ve cleared somewhat earlier this year. The ground is littered with dry leaves, which would burn, but most of the grass and brush is still green, so it seemed unlikely that that would burn too quickly.
Ultimately, I figured there were too many unknowns, and that I’d find out when I got there. I prepared myself for the worst, and started thinking about the impact of losing everything. I went through a mental list of everything there, and I was relieved to realize that there was nothing there that I couldn’t replace. It was just stuff. Everything that’s important about the property and what I’ve done over the past year is in my head. Though, I’d lose a lot of stuff, that was for sure. I’d lose my firearms. Then there’s the solar panels, expensive AGM battery, the fridge, the generator, power tools, the trailer… The list went on. I figured the total loss would be no more than $10k, which I figured would set me back some, but would be far from devastating. The property value would also take a temporary hit, but in just a couple of years, green would return, and the forest would be in even better shape than it is now. It would mean a sooner-than-expected end to my woods dwelling adventures, but I knew it was temporary anyway. So, all in all, it didn’t seem too bad.
As I topped the mountain pass nearest to my property, I was relieved when I failed to spot the giant column of smoke that I’d dreaded seeing. I passed by the local volunteer fire station, and they still had two engines in the garage. On the county road leading towards my area, I saw another fire truck pulling back onto the road, probably after ending its watch duty. A couple of miles out, I saw a sheriff’s truck heading in the opposite direction. It seemed like things were under control. I got to the dirt road, and was relieved to see the area pretty much as it had always been. Then I pulled up to my neighbor’s lot, which I have to pass through to get to my property, and parked my car among the water tankers and fire engines. There were two tankers, and three or four fire engines. I spotted my neighbors right away.
As they tell the story, they had returned from a trip into town, where they’d filled up a 25 gallon tank of propane. They were sitting in their lawn chairs, when they noticed a cloud of gas coming out of the propane tank, still strapped to the bed of the truck. The granddaughter quickly realized that there was a pilot lamp in the trailer, and got her grandfather (who can’t walk) onto the quad, and away. Merely 30 seconds to a minute and a half after they noticed the gas, it ignited. It must have been a spectacular ball of flame. I saw the propane tank later, and it had actually split down the side, though the investigator also said the valve had opened half a turn, somehow. From there, the fire spread to the rest of the truck, and throughout the trailer. Radiant heat ignited some of the neighboring brush, and burning debris lifted up by convection got carried by the wind to start spot fires nearby. As I’d predicted, the wind was blowing away from my property, and the spot fires were all on the side of their camp opposite to the direction of mine.
When I arrived, the fire was completely under control. The firefighters were mostly focusing on smothering the smoldering remains of the spot fires in the surrounding woods, which understandably was a larger threat. The trailer and truck were obviously a loss anyway, and I overheard one senior firefighter say he decided to direct all efforts to the surrounding brush fire, partially because he knew there was ammunition cooking off in the trailer. Apparently they even had a helicopter come drop some water. To be honest, I was sad I missed that part… I do like helicopters (they were probably Hueys too, my favorite). I watched the firefighters as they thoroughly drenched every patch of smoldering ground, and every smoking tree, even touching burnt out cores of trees with their bare hands to make sure nothing was even warm. They had guys walking around in the unburnt areas, looking for more smoldering debris that could start more fires (apparently they found a few). There were still bits of the trailer on fire, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned about that, and let it burn out before they attacked it with copious amounts of water and fire suppressants.
Since the fire was under control by the time I got there, they let us get close and watch them work. I tried not to get in the way, but I followed the bureau chief around as she pointed out various indicators to another firefighter. She pointed at oak leaves, and how they curl towards the fire. At a burnt stump, concave like a chair, which indicated the direction the fire came from. She picked up cables on the generator, and talked about how, if the copper had balled up, it could indicate an arc. She pointed out how one side of the generator frame had more paint than the other, one side of the lawn chair more fabric than the other. She turned her attention towards the vehicle, at the patterns on the burnt hood of the truck, and how the window had fall out of, as opposed to into, the car. It was all quite fascinating, and made me wonder if I should consider a change in careers. She also looked a lot like a girl I had a crush on in 10th grade.
Eventually, my neighbors’ relatives showed up from Redding, and they started picking things out of the fire and packing up what they’d managed to save. The granddaughter was camping in a tent upwind from the trailer, and most of her stuff had survived. Her grandfather lost just about everything, though hopefully insurance will cover his losses. But most importantly, they’d escaped the ordeal shaken but unscathed. It could’ve been much, much worse.
Phew. Life out here sure never gets dull. And now that I’m back to not having neighbors, I have nobody who can water my garden if I go away. I better get working on that irrigation system, I guess. And good thing I’d already planned on getting fire resistant siding for my hut upgrade. Maybe I should add another water tank too. Just in case.