Friday, January 05, 2007


It was the Tuesday before Christmas. I was out on the tractor, down on the road. There were pot holes to fill and I had been postponing the chore for days.

I don’t know how it started. The fire, that is. A spark from a chimney? I suppose, though there's no evidence of that. However, nothing else comes to mind. I did notice the day after the fire that a back fence had been cut, someone had been trespassing and had taken cutters to the anti-deer fence so they could get through. But that could have been anything. And I don’t really want to go down that path. A poacher cutting across a field? One of my neighbors coming up to see what had happened without wanting to bother with actually visiting?

As I said, I don’t know much, so it was probably a spark from a chimney landing on some kindling and quickly spreading to a stack of fire wood.

The rest of the story goes something like this...

After spending the morning up in my office, looking through seed catalogues and planning for the coming growing season I went downstairs, put on my boots and slipped out the back door.

Out along the walk that runs over past the greenhouse I saw the mother peahen and her chick pecking around in the grass, I guess looking for seeds in the grass. When they saw me coming, however, they turned and ran back through the greenhouse door, jumped up on a growing table and stood there watching me suspiciously.

I didn’t follow them in. Instead I took the path around the edge of the greenhouse and past those three large propane tanks, three hundred gallons of propane, that had just been topped off the day before. I walked past the tanks and over to the boiler house.

It was a warm day. The temperatures well above 50 degrees.

All of you that have been out to the farm and have gone on the standard farm tour have seen my wood boiler. It’s right by the greenhouse. That large, very industrial looking, state of the art, wood gasification boiler that took firewood, burned it, and then burned the gases, in a configuration that is extremely efficient. It is so efficient that when you look up at the chimney there isn’t very much smoke at all going into the air.

I opened the boiler door and looked inside.

Since it was a warm day it didn’t take much of a fire to heat the hot water that runs through the radiators and radiant floor heat inside our house. In fact, when I looked inside the boiler the thermostat had flipped the switch and shut down the fan that allows the fire to burn. The water in the boiler was hot enough that it didn’t need a fire and had turned itself off.

I went over to the wood pile anyway and returned with a couple logs and threw them inside, just in case it needed more wood later.

I closed the boiler door, looked around, didn’t see anything out of the normal, put on my work gloves, picked up my earmuffs (the ones that protect ears from the loud sound put out by noisy farm equipment) from where I’d left them on top of the wood splitter from where I’d finished splitting the last of a dozen cords of wood the day before.

Then I walked out in the field where I’d left our larger tractor (the smaller one I left right by the boiler house, with the log splitter still hooked to it), climbed up on the tractor, put on the earphones, and started the diesel engine and finally put it in gear and headed down the drive, down to the creek and the bottom road with its pot holes.

I was down on the bottom road for an hour. Maybe two. Using the bucket on the front of the tractor to pick up gravel and push it into the pot holes. Occasionally getting off the tractor with my shovel to toss a load or two of gravel into a hole.

It didn’t take long and when I finished I drove the tractor back up the hill. But I wasn’t in a hurry.

When I got to the chicken pasture I put on the brake, climbed down and walked over to the chickens, jumped over the electric fence keeping them in and went in the hen house to collect eggs.

There were almost a dozen.

Then I opened up the feed storage boxes and took out two fifty pound bags of feed and filled up the chicken’s feeders before jumping the fence again and climbing back up on the tractor.

I released the brake and careful not to drop the eggs, slowly drove the tractor back toward the house.

It was a nice day and as the tractor slowly rolled down the drive I was looking off into the forest. There were two squirrels chasing each other back and forth between several trees and some crows sitting up on a pine tree.

Finally, when I got to the top of the hill, where the driveway breaks through the trees and you can look down, across the field, and toward the house I saw, coming from the boiler house, smoke.

I stopped and looked. Not thinking fire. Thinking, thinking it looks like the wind was blowing the smoke from the boiler’s chimney back down toward the house.

Only that boiler doesn’t produce that much smoke. Then I noticed the sunlight. Or at least what I thought was sunlight.

It was like bright orange sunbeams breaking through the trees. Bright orange sunbeams lighting up the old holly tree that Wenonah’s father had planted over 50 years ago now.

Just sunlight and smoke.

And then I realized it wasn’t sunlight at all. The orange was flickering.


I hit the accelerator, racing the tractor down the hill.

At the house I didn’t even bother to pull the brake, just dropped the front end loader and jumped off, running through the gate in the stone wall, seeing that the woodshed was already up in flames and the fire was starting to spread to the greenhouse. I ran toward the fire thinking, thinking can I put it out myself. Hook up the large irrigation hose to the 5000 gallons of water in the tanks up the hill. The tanks I use for irrigation. I could run the water through the two inch irrigation hose down the hill to the greenhouse.

I’d have enough pressure.

As I rounded the corner of the house, even fifty feet away, I could feel the heat on my face. It was like the fire was reaching out to melt our house.

I stopped and watched as the plastic covering to the greenhouse burst into flames. One large sheet floated up in the air, on fire, and then came down on the tanks.

The propane tanks. Full to the top. Topped off just last week.

And the fire burning all around the tanks. I remembered reading somewhere that a gallon of propane was more explosive than a dozen sticks of dynamite.

And I had three hundred gallons. More than thirty-six hundred sticks of dynamite.

The thought almost paralyzed me. The heat on my face. The greenhouse in flames. The wood shed burning. And all that heat.

I started to back up from the heat, from the hire and turned and went into the house. Even inside I could hear it. The flames crackling and feel how the insides of the house had already started to heat up.

What would it take for the fire to spread to the house?

I looked around. Was there anyone inside? Animals? Cats? Where were the geese? What about the peahen and chick that had backed into the greenhouse? By then I had the phone in my hand but I had no idea what number to call. Emergency numbers? The phone book was upstairs somewhere. I thought about running upstairs and looking for it but didn’t. I dialed 911.

And that’s when the first propane tank went up. It sounded like an explosion. In fact, when I heard it I thought that’s what it was. The propane tank exploding. Sounding like a missile igniting followed by the long whining sound I remember so well from Vietnam.

Incoming rockets. Mortar shells screaming from above..

The phone was ringing. The thought went through my mind that there wasn’t anyone answering the emergency line. Does that happen? Do those lines go unanswered? I only half listened to the phone while with the other part of my mind was thinking. What should I be doing? Where were the cats?

Then there was a voice on the other end of the line.

And another explosion.

It was getting hot in the house. I told her there was a fire. “My house is on fire.” I said. “I mean, not my house. The shed outside my house. It’s burning. And the propane. It just exploded.”

I didn’t see the cats. Surely they wouldn’t still be inside. I was looking out the front door and yelling into the phone that there was a fire. I’m sure I sounded confused and jumbled but the woman on the other end of the line must have had a check list.

“Is anyone hurt?” “Is everyone accounted for?” “What is your address?” Then there was yet another explosion. I could see the flame shooting up in the air sort of like a roman candle coming right out of the top of one of the propane tanks. The woman on the phone was talking to me.

“You better get out of the house now. Run.”

And I did. Or at least I went outside. I put the phone down on the floor just inside the door and as soon as I stepped outside I could feel the heat.

I looked over toward the greenhouse only to see it on fire and another roman candle igniting from the next tank. They must not be exploding, I thought to myself. it must be gas escaping from a valve, causing it to shoot up in the air like that. Sort of like a torch. Shooting up in the air at first maybe twenty feet, then fifty. Then seventy-five feet.

It stayed that high. The flame, just roaring a torch seventy five feet up and then slowly burning back, dropping down. Fifty, forty, thirty, twenty.

And the tank next to it went off.

A flame shooting up in the air.

I stood there with my mouth open in wonder, realizing that the tanks weren’t actually exploding, instead they were just releasing through the pressure value. The tanks were getting hot, the gas inside expanding and just as they were built to do, the pressure valve released pressure from the tank. Released gas through the value in the top of the tank.

And when it did, it went up in flames. And up into the air.

The third tank started releasing. Then there was the first. Sort of like a pipe organ.

I wondered how long it would take the fire trucks to arrive. The fire was only twenty five feet from the house. A mighty flame and plenty of heat. I decided I better get some water and cool off the south end of the house, the end closest to the fire.

But where were the hoses.

And it was then that I remembered storing some of them inside the greenhouse. thirty hoses laid out from one end of the greenhouse to the other. Thirty 100 foot long hoses.

I circled the fire, circling the burning boiler house. The burning wood shed. The melting greenhouse. The exploding propane tank, the burning log splitter. Even our hot tub, or is that hot spring tub.

(if you have seen this thing it is a huge pond made out of large pieces of flagstone, The bottom stone is a flag something like ten feet by ten feet and the sides are made out of flagstones, three and four foot square piece set on end. I quarried the stones from the side of our mountain over a decade ago. The water is the water coming down from the spring, but heated by the wood boiler, therefore hot spring water. or a ‘hot spring.’ Anyway, several days after the fire I was walking around looking at the damage, trying to imagine how it started. You know, feeling pretty ill from looking at all of that work, those months and years melted and burnt and charred away when I saw the tub. Under the intense heat the rocks, the large flags had cracked and shattered, ruining the hot tub. Oh well).

I slipped around the fire and made it into the far end of the greenhouse and opened the door.

The greenhouse was built on a hill. The end closest to the house was the up hill side. That was the end on fire while the downhill side hadn’t yet caught fire. But as I went in the door I knew it wouldn’t be for long.

It was awfully hot inside, though with very little smoke. it was hotter than it gets inside during the summer with the doors shut. Then it gets up over 130 degrees, hot enough that you only want to spend a couple seconds inside.

It was that bad now. Maybe worst.

And the hoses. I started pulling on one but I saw right away it wasn’t going to do any good. The far ends of the various hoses, the ones up by the fire had already either melted or burned. I pulled one down but got only half of it. The other half was gone. Burning.

I turned and left the greenhouse, leaving the heat as fast as possible. As I got back out in the cooler air I remembered that there might be a hose or two up on the top field. Up by the water tanks. I think I had left some up there. So I started back up the hill again.

You would have thought that by now there would have been a fire truck. I mean, it sure seemed like half an hour now since I’d had called the emergency number.

But they still weren’t there. And none coming down the drive.

I thought though, as I ran up the hill, that I could hear a siren somewhere off in the distance.

(I'll try to finish the next part tomorrow -- Leigh)


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