Friday, December 31, 2010

Farm Fire - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

In the early 1990’s Lisa and I had an opportunity to buy a small ten-acre farm in the SW portion of our fair city. The land had no road frontage, and had an easement across other people to get to it, making the place undesirable to developers, but perfect for us. The property is surrounded by older developments of houses that back up to the land all around us. We had an urge to grow a large garden and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Little did we know that a large garden requires an immense amount of time and effort to maintain. As we were both starting our careers and had little extra time or energy, the raccoons ran off with most of the fruits of our labors and the weeds got the rest. A wise developer-client of mine once told me “you don’t own ten acres, it owns you”. He was spot on with his observation.

After the garden fiasco, we needed a way to maintain the property properly. You don’t mow ten acres with a riding lawnmower, because by the time you get finished, its time to start all over again, hence the “it owns you” mantra. So, we bought a tractor to do the job. A wheezing, old, 1958 Ford 8N model from some guy in Athens. It was in remarkable shape for its age and worked well. When I describe this tractor as old, I mean that to get parts, you don’t get to go to the parts store, you have to go to Cracker Barrels across the south land and buy them from their walls and rafters.

One Spring morning, I was busy creating urban sprawl at my job, when the wife of friend of mine called and needed a temporary job for their son. Jonathan’s father was serving in Iraq, and needed work to help out. I couldn’t use him on the survey crew, so Lisa and I hired him to get the tractor out and mow the farm for us. The first “starting of the tractor” each year is almost a ritual ceremony that slightly changes every spring. A very complex combination of starting fluid, gasoline, manual choke arrangements, cursing, and prayer is required to awaken the sleeping red and gray giant.

Jonathan was a part time mechanic, so I felt he was best suited to get the tractor started and do the job. I met him on the site and went over the procedure that had worked last year. I left to another appointment and him to his devices to get the job done. The field was still damp from a rain the week before, but OK to drive on for the limited traffic that the tractor would need. The land was covered with the golden brown sage grass that seems to grow in the winter.

About an hour later, I got a call from Jonathan that everything was going well and that after a few sputtering starts and stops, the tractor engine was eventually purring like a kitten. He had made several passes with the bush-hog mower and should be done by that afternoon. Another hour later, Jonathan called to tell me that a small fire had started around the tractor and that he was working on getting it out. A few minutes later he called to ask for the number of the Hartselle Fire Department. This is not what you want to hear, so after calling the fire department, I raced out to see what was going on.

When I got to the property, I saw an out-of control grass fire that was moving with a swiftness that was shocking. The ground was sort of damp, but the sage grass was dry and was burning like gasoline. In a few minutes the Fire Department showed up and quickly assessed the situation. They called for back up and began to beat out the flames and hose down the grass. The fire had spread out in all directions from the tractor, so the first responders were quickly overwhelmed and more units were called. Eventually every fire truck the City of Hartselle owned was in my pasture. To make matters even worse, the ground was not as dry as we all thought and in a matter of minutes they were all stuck in the mud to the axles on the fire trucks and could not move.

Ricky Joe Smith, the Chief at the time, called a local wrecker service to come get all of his trucks out of my field so they could move. The wrecker guy showed up, saw the crazy scene, and told Rickey Joe that he wasn’t getting into this mess and left. Ricky Joe peeled the paint off the wrecker truck with his language as the guy drove away. The Chief had no choice but to enact emergency procedures and call in surrounding communities Flint and Ebeneezer volunteer fire units to answer Hartselle calls that day as there seemed to be no solution to the situation they were in. If another fire had happened in Hartselle that day, Decatur would have to be called in to respond as fast as they could.

The fire was spreading away from the now immobile fleet of HFD vehicles and was speeding toward the property fence on the east boundary. The land on the other side of the fence was a pine thicket about 200 feet wide that was the back yard of some very large houses on Rice Road. The thicket had not been raked in over ten years and pine needles lay over a foot thick. The fire now reached this point and the flames rose to frightening heights as it consumed the dry pine needles. The firemen watched helplessly as the fire roared out of control towards the homes in one of Hartselle’s more influential neighborhoods.

As if we were in a movie, right in the nick of time, a Flint City Fire Department 4-wheel drive pickup truck with a water tank in the bed arrived, saw what was happening, and drove right into the flames of the burning pine thicket. The driver and his partner got out and sprayed the fire all around them, effectively putting it out. The Flint FD guys saved the Rice Road houses from danger, then turned around and chased down the last of the flames in the other directions. After the fire danger was over, they stayed behind to help extricate a few of the critical HFD trucks from the field to put them back into service. One of the firemen owned a large 4-wheel drive truck with a winch that they used to get the other fire trucks out.

During the post-mortem on the fire, it was concluded that the tractor had a gasoline leak that had ignited the freshly cut sage brush somehow. Jonathan said he wasn’t smoking at the time, but who knows. The HFD seemed to want to forget the whole thing happened and didn’t pursue it further. I don’t know if Hartselle ever bought a “brush truck” for our department, but there was no better salesman than the action on that day for one. Chief Ricky Joe Smith retired immediately afterward, and ironically, opened a wrecker business, where he is today. The Ford 8N tractor was not damaged, other than some burned wires. It still runs, as long as there are Cracker Barrels....