Monday, March 23, 2009

A Good Rainy Day

Dawn seemed to come late this morning, as gray clouds blocked the sun and a gentle rain fell. While I know that most of us would have preferred a sunny day, the cloudy skies and rain were likely a welcome sight to area firefighters. A minimum of 28 grass fires in the past seven days in Marion County have made for a busy week for the dedicated men and women—mostly volunteers—who fight our fires.

Sunday afternoon a tiny flame or ember that escaped a burning trash barrel set fire to approximately 20 acres of land west of Knoxville on McGregor. That only 20 acres burned is a tribute to our area firefighters. Just outside of Knoxville, McGregor is in the fire territory assigned to the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department. Shortly after arriving at the scene, crew leaders determined that they needed help. The fire was about to reach hundreds of acres of land managed by the Corp of Engineers that serve as a buffer against floodwaters when Lake Red Rock reaches capacity. These waters back up into the Whitebreast drainage and its grassy shores, and with recent dry weather the grassland could have been ablaze quickly, with the possibility of miles of the southern shore of Lake Red Rock aflame.

I can imagine the feelings of the person who accidentally set the fire, just as it slipped from their grasp. Pure panic. Perhaps they were simply burning the Saturday trash as they did every week, and were watching it carefully, when the wind picked up and a bit of paper blew away, setting the nearby grass on fire. Very likely for a moment they thought they had the fire under control, fearfully running and stomping at the little pyre as it quickly grew, then finally chasing it desperation as it fled with the wind. Or maybe they set the trash in the barrel on fire, like they had done a thousand times before, and then retreated inside and upstairs to wash dishes at the kitchen sink, with plans to look out at the burning barrel below as the trash slowly burned--just to be safe. And then, with their hands in sudsy dishwater, they spied the fire leap from the barrel, caress the grass, then rise, and sprint to the nearby Whitebreast grasslands. Perhaps they yelled for help, ran outside, and grabbed the hose to turn it on only to realize that they were too late. The hose didn't stretch that far. Either way, and perhaps recognizing that there was no plausible deniability as to who started the fire, dialed 911.

From here, our dispatch team at the Marion County Law Enforcement Center paged out the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department, and they quickly arrived, perhaps their fifth or sixth fire of the weekend. Tired, and thinking of their families and the conversations, chores, and other tasks left incomplete or unattended, they raced through the streets in their red fire trucks, sirens wailing and flashing lights blazing to the fire scene. As they arrived, I'm sure someone was out in front of the house, pointing the way for our firefighters to pass through the yards safely, even though the smoke from the fire could be seen for miles. Perhaps the person who started the fire mouthed "I'm sorry" as the firefighters passed, or gave an apologetic shrug as they pointed the way. Either way, knowing many of our firefighters as I do, I suspect that they were either expressionless, taking in the fire scene in front of them, or nodded and smiled as they passed.

KNIA KRLS Knoxville News Director Alex Rusciano and I were there, watching as Knoxville Rural FD fought the fire, soon with help from Knoxville, Pleasantville and Columbia Fire Departments. Marion County Sheriff's Deputies positioned themselves where they could watch the fire engines and pumpers abandoned on the street, as the quicker grass trucks with their small water tanks and hoses were more efficient fire fighting equipment on the sloping terrain. Our firefighters worked with speed and efficiency, much to the appreciation of the family in whose back yard the fire was started. The family stood on a deck behind the house, quietly cheering the firefighters on as they took photographs and shot video. Scanning their faces, I tried to figure out who had started the fire, but soon realized my powers of perception were insufficient, and I felt it rude to ask.

As we watched, grass trucks darted around the field, returning to refuel from tankers and fire engines as needed, then roared back into action, chewing up the landscape as their tires spun spitting dirt, burnt grass, and charcoal. After about an hour of hard work, and when it appeared that the fire was under control, and that the southern shore of Lake Red Rock was saved, the grass trucks moved more slowly, checking hot spots to make sure that nothing would re-ignite.

Once the scene was secure, the firefighters gathered their gear, climbed into their trucks, and with the Sheriff's deputies they formed a firefighting conga line, engines, tankers, grass trucks and sheriff's cars slowly driving down the street, towards home, family and tasks unfinished. I took up the rear, lagging behind, and saw the family who started the fire waving thanks at the crews, even if they didn't.

Dr. Bob Leonard

PHOTO: Austin Kingery (in truck) and Brian Schlotterback check hot spots.

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