The fire bit deep, tunneled into the peat moss at Arabi Bay, and it hid there, and it hibernated. In November it sprang up, created by an arsonist, and it devoured vegetation and it blenched out a thick fog of smoke, like a dragon from a cave. But it was cool weather, and it rain and rain and rained and no one thought the fire still lived, except those of us who never think fire is dead, even when we see the ashes. Those Old Timers who swear they have seen smoke boiling out from under the water, they are fools, most say, but I listen to them, and I take note of their words, for they have not lived long by being stupid.
Last week the fire rose again, from the depth of the peat moss in front of the eyes of those who did not believe and in vengeance it destroyed homes and ate trees and it raced across over twelve thousand acres of land in a heartbeat. It was dead, they said, and it could not come back, they said, and they said this was a different fire but those who know said this was that fire we thought was dead and it is not. Now we know it is that fire, lying in wait for a winter, frozen, wet, cold, and dying underground, kept alive by the coals and the pressure of the ground that locks the water out.
I have seen this, you know. I have seen a machine dig out a ditch full of water, full of green living vegetation, and life, and then six or seven feet down is powder dry dirt. They say now the fire ate its way under ditches full of water and those who have not seen do not believe but I have seen. I believe. This is that fire. The Old Timers tell me it is, and it is. What most cannot trust unless it is on a screen I will listen to the voices of those who have seen life through eyes, not code.
Those who fight fires are a curious breed. Dew know how deadly fire is, but none surrender their careers in a job where in a day they will inhale what is like three packs of cigarettes. They will put themselves in the path of something that is burning, alive, and moving as fast as the wind, or faster, and these men and women seek to kill this thing, like they are out fighting a dragon or dozen each time they put on their armor. My job is to close roads and watch for people trying to get through and to help the lost. My job in this is much like the page boy who hands the fighters a spear, or a sword, or a mace, and to stay out of the way. I got there late, after the first rains had fallen Saturday, and it looked for all the world as if the fire had gone out. It had looked like this before.
Saturday was uneventful, boring, and Sunday didn’t look bad either. Rain fell, and even if it was not enough to kill the fire it was enough to put out what was on the surface. Sunday night came and a church opened its doors and let cots be set up for those fighting the fires and manning the barricades. I found a cot and lay down, but could not sleep. Sleep was had by a man who had slept three hours in four days, and his body drank deeply of the rest. He snored, not like a man exhausted, but like a man who fought fires for a living, and whose body was nearly dead. The rest of the men were likewise tired but they had to stand and watch this. The snoring man’s entire body shook with a noise we could not believe, and a thick river of drool ran down his mouth like a waterfall. “Gotta get some pictures of this for his wife!” and I eased out of the door, and back into the rainy night.
One of those who cannot sleep tells me of the house they went to where a man and woman complained about the smell of gas in their home. The firemen went there and one of them, the man who was telling me the story, discovered they had quite a large pilot light on a heater. He then discovered they had been using it to light their crack pipe. They didn’t have a lighter so they would lie down on the floor and light the pipe from the pilot light of the heater and that was where they were smelling gas. The man telling this story spun a great tale, all of it true, because such things do not have to be invented by fire fighters. They have many stories, all true, and they will tell them, betimes.
One spoke with me about the Flood Of 1994, and we shared some common stories of that flood. Fireants will crawl all over one another under they form calls, and some of these ball of ants can be as big as basketballs, really. This man told of masses of ants as he tried to rescue people from house that were underwater, and the people inside perched on high things, above the water line, and below the windows. They cut holes in the roofs with chainsaws to get people out, and I saw that being done a time or two.
But one by one, the exhausted men fell asleep. I wish I had taken notes, wish I had spoken with more of them, and I was glad we have such men, and women, who will go to places that burn, and out the fires out, or get the people out, or just go and wait for something to happen, and react when it does. For my part I could not sleep, and I lat awake and listen to the rain fall, and I knew the fire would wake up soon.