Fire Danger on the Homestead

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I suspect that–for most folks–moving back to the land is both an end and a beginning. It’s a turning point … the time when (at long last!) all those years of scrimping and saving for “that little place in the country” pays off. And perhaps this year you’ll be among those who tear up their time cards, take off their ties, kiss the rat race goodbye, and head for some remote corner of God’s country in search of the good life.

Wonderful! Go at it with a vengeance! Put your whole body and soul into your land! But don’t ever forget–as we did–that everything you’ve worked so hard for can be wiped out in a matter of minutes by a single destructive element: fire!

When my husband and I first moved to our new farm we were on top of the world. Our place was right out of a dream: 60 beautiful acres in the hills of Kentucky, with fruit trees and springs, abundant wildlife, lovely woods, some open land, an old log cabin, and breath-taking views.

We did have one problem, however. Our land was overrun with honeysuckle, and the vegetation was choking our fruit trees (and everything else in its path). So we pulled up miles of the vine from around our house and elsewhere in order to give other plants (and ourselves) some room. And of course, the most obvious way to dispose of the brush we’d uprooted was by burning.

We knew from previous experience that March through October is the fire-hazard season in our state, and that burning throughout that period is permissible only after 4 p.m., when the winds die down. So we chose a nice February afternoon to do the job. Both of us thought it would be a perfect time.

Being avid backpackers and environmentalists, we knew the importance of clearing away leaves and other combustible materials from around any fire area. My husband and I had always practiced that safety rule when we went camping without a stove … but for some reason, we didn’t do it before we lit our piles of brush. When the fire began spreading into surrounding dry grass and broom sedge we thought we could control it. But we were wrong.

The two of us beat and poured sand on the flaming sedge … all in vain. It soon became apparent that a call for help was in order, but our place is secluded (isolation does have its pitfalls) and there are no telephones in the area. Fortunately, our neighbor has a CB radio which he used to summon the county fire and state forestry departments, as well as many wonderful neighbors we’d never met.

Everyone pitched in without question and the blaze was stopped just at the edge of our woods. Miraculously, our fruit trees survived unscathed, but our two beautiful cedars–which had provided us and many bluebirds with much joy–were half black. Actually only a few acres were charred, but the awful knowledge that we were responsible manifested itself in tears every time I looked at those forlorn cedars.

And yet how fortunate we were! The fire had been headed directly toward our neighbor’s place, and the road that all our help came in on is usually close to impassable during February. (in fact, one truck did get stuck on its way to the blaze and had to be pulled out.)

In other words: Please, friends, don’t ever take chances with fire. Our almost-tragic catastrophe occurred under near-perfect trash-burning conditions with two adults standing by. Take some advice from a person who’s learned the hard way:

[1] Check the laws in your county and state and burn only during permissible periods … but even then, don’t set a match to brush if your own common sense tells you that conditions are too dry or windy.

[2] Clear a firebreak around the vegetation to be burned … always.

[3] Notify your state forester or county fire department if you do plan to incinerate brush. They’ll sometimes even help supervise the job.

A fire rampaging out of control, destroying everything in its path–wildlife, your land and home, and perhaps even a neighbor’s house–is a terrifying sight. And believe me, the few precautionary measures that are necessary to prevent such an occurrence are more than worth the effort.