From abstract to concrete in just a few hours

Prior to Thursday, forest fires had only been an abstract concept for me. For years, I thought (when I gave them any thought at all, which was rare) that they only happened in the western part of the country - Colorado, California, places like that.

Last year, I was disabused of that notion when there were a couple of fairly big fires in Drew County. After one which burned about 1,500 acres, I drove down a gravel road in the Ladelle area. The blaze had crossed over that road like it wasn’t even there, demolishing a pine plantation on both sides. The trees were still smoldering, and it looked like something out of an apocalyptic science-fiction movie. But no one was hurt, and I think I remember that there weren’t even any structures damaged, miraculously. The blaze was in a remote area, far from town, so forest fires still didn’t seem like much of a threat.

That all changed Thursday when I heard about the fire that had started somewhere along Tennessee Spur. I pass the north end of Tennessee Spur every day on my way to and from work, so that got my attention. Coming home that afternoon, a thick pillar of black smoke hung in the sky south of Hwy. 278. It got thicker and heavier the closer I got to Wilmar. I went into Wilmar to pick up my mom, then we came back to the old homeplace that sits just off the highway on our property on the north side of 278. We passed numerous cars pulled over on the side of the road watching, and there were three CenterPoint Energy trucks in my driveway.

We took seats on the front porch of the old house for awhile and watched, fascinated. It was scary, yes, but we didn’t see flames and couldn’t tell how far away the actual fire was, so it wasn’t terrifying, yet. Eventually, we left and headed back toward Mom’s house in Wilmar, only to be stopped around South Allis Road and told we’d have to go back to I-530, then come down Barkada and turn onto Hwy. 133. About an hour and a half later, I tried to go back home, but couldn’t. I began to get really scared then, but talked to some of the emergency folks who told me it was a few miles away. I was keeping up with the fire the best I could through news sites and Facebook, and was relieved to hear that it was nearly contained around 10 p.m. I was just about to drift off to sleep up at Mom’s when I saw that the wind had picked up and the fire was getting out of control again.

I didn’t sleep well, obviously, and then panicked when I woke up around 4 a.m. and discovered new, horrific pictures of the blaze and a post from a friend who said the fire looked like it was about to get into the pasture across the road from my house. I couldn’t sleep at all after that, and bolted out of bed at 6 a.m. to go see what had happened. The relief that swept over me when I saw that everything was okay was palpable. Especially when, through the darkness, I could see headlights in the pasture my friend had mentioned, I assume from firefighters still stationed there to make sure the fire stayed contained. That was a real “There but for the grace of God go I” moment. I had to just sit there a minute and take in the enormity of what had happened and how close disaster had come.

Several people had called, emailed or texted the night before to check on me. One even asked if I needed help moving anything. I told everyone no, thanks, everything was fine. The fire was several miles away. It really didn’t occur to me that I should be gathering up my important documents and favorite possessions. I thought surely the firefighters would be able to handle it. After all, I counted five or six fire and water trucks coming down the highway, in addition to ones I knew were already there, and saw the planes making trips back and forth. I also knew that there were men on dozers and fireplows, and I guess I had faith that they would be able to bring it under control.

Had I known how close it was getting, and how high the flames were and how fast the embers were moving in the wind, I would have been absolutely petrified. The next day, when I heard about friends and neighbors trying to decide which items to grab as they prepared to evacuate, I realized that I probably should have been making the same kind of decisions.

We were so blessed that no one was hurt and that only a couple of structures were affected. We are so blessed to have brave, trained firefighters and volunteers. I am so thankful, and I will never look at forest fires the same way again. There’s nothing like an actual close call to help you make the shift from abstraction to reality.

<strong><em>(Beverly Burks is the former editor of the Advance-Monticellonian. She can be reached at beverly.burks@gmail.com.)</em></strong>

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