Adventures in Firefighting

Photo - The Author

I was rudely awakened at 4am one morning by the tones of the paging system of our local volunteer fire department. Blurry eyed and trying to shake myself into consciousness, I heard the address of a reported brush fire. As I crawled over the side-rail of the waterbed, all I could think was “how in the world does a brush fire get started at 4am?” The majority of the brush fires I had responded to had been caused by someone burning trash and letting the fire get away from them. Who in their right mind would be burning trash at 4am?

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I stumbled my way down the hallway to the utility room and stepped into my bunker gear pants and boots, pulled the pants up, and threw the suspenders over my shoulders. I pulled on my bunker coat, grabbed my helmet, and stumbled out to my pickup. As I drove down the driveway, I was still fixated on the cause of this blaze. I picked up my radio and called our department volunteers and cautioned them to check carefully for downed power lines. The last thing we needed was a volunteer firefighter getting killed stepping out of a vehicle trying to extinguish a brush fire.

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I flipped on the red strobe lightbar, flashing headlights, and siren, and quickly made my way to the fire scene. I made no apologies to my sleeping neighbors I passed for all the noise. Abiding by state law, no siren would make me liable for any possible accidents enroute, and I was not opening myself up on that one.

Arriving at the fire scene, I saw four of our volunteers already working with hand tools to extinguish the fire. I took out my flashlight and began carefully inspecting the overhead power lines. Everything was intact - no down power lines. What could have started this fire? Content the scene was safe, I stepped out of the truck, retrieved a fire flap out of one of the tool boxes, and began fighting the fire.

Once we had the fire completely knocked out, as the senior officer on scene, I knew my next responsibility was to determine the cause and write the report. So, I began walking and observing the burn pattern. A couple other volunteers joined me walking and observing. We quickly noted that there was a very apparent “V” pattern which pointed to a point of origination. At the base of the “V” was a severely burned carcass that I would estimate at 7 to 8 lbs. Looking at the remainder of the carcass gave me pause as I attempted to identify the animal. A group of firefighters circled the carcass and a heated discussion ensued.

“It looks like a possum”, one guy noted.

“Nah, I think it’s a raccoon”, another quickly disagreed.
The possum vs. coon discussion went back and forth for several minutes. Those who were steadfast in their beliefs that it was a possum were basing their conclusion solely on the diameter of the tail. I tried to interject that the tail was probably much thicker before it had been burned, but they were hearing none of it.

Those on the other side of the argument countered that raccoons climbed trees and phone poles and possums did not.  Unable to arrive at a consensus, I steered the conversation away from what kind of animal it was to constructing a hypothesis of what had happened. I suggested that this animal had climbed the utility pole which was 5 feet from where the carcass was lying, and somehow had gotten across both terminals on the transformer which blew it off the transformer and set its fur on fire. When it hit the ground, the burning carcass had set the broom straw field on fire.
Everyone present seemed content with accepting my hypothesis as plausible. So, we were back to the argument of identifying the animal. One of my good friends had remained silent up to this point of the discussion. He spit a large amount of tobacco juice on the ground, pulled on the suspenders of his bunker pants, and said, “It’s obvious it’s a coon.” Everyone stopped the conversations mid-sentence and looked at my friend. “OK, why is that?” one asked. “That’s simple”, he replied, “If it was a possum, there would be sweet taters.”

(For the curious, possum and sweet potato recipes can be found here: Southern Cuisine: Baked Possum with Apples and Sweet Potatoes)

No one seemed to have any further arguments. I wrote the report noting a raccoon had apparently crawled across both terminals of the transformer, setting its fur on fire and blowing it off the pole into a broom straw field setting it ablaze. I have always thought it would have been an amazing sight to have been driving down that county two lane road in the middle of the night and to have seen a flaming raccoon flying through the air.

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