The Dairy Farm Adventures: Fire-starter

Posted Tuesday, October 15, 2013 in Features

The Dairy Farm Adventures: Fire-starter

by Lee-Rae Jordan-Oliver

My father is a “fire starter.”  Ever since I remember, as soon as the snow melted, Mom and Dad would go outside to rake and burn brush and leaves to beautify their property.  When I was eight, Dad showed me what happens when you combine gasoline with fire. 

Three decades ago, home owners could burn the leaves they raked on their property in the middle of Houlton.  One spring weekend, Mom, Dad, and I had raked up a giant mountain of leaves on our front lawn on Pleasant Street.   When it came time to burn our leaves, Dad told Mom and me to, “Stand back and watch this!”

We watched him pour a mason jar full of gasoline into the middle of the leaf pile.  Then he lit a match and tossed it into the center of the pile and backed away quickly.   Instantaneously, the pile exploded with a “WHOOMPH!”  A plume of smoke, fire, and leaves burst ten feet into the air.  

The grin on Dad's face and the twinkle in his eyes revealed he was clearly pleased with the  backyard volcanic eruption.  My eyes were as big a saucers as he told me, “Don't ever try to start a fire using gasoline.  Gasoline is extremely explosive when combined with fire and can blow up in your face in an instant.”

The fire demonstration was forever ingrained in my brain.  Though I've never been afraid of fire, I've always been respectful of its power and force.  Over the past six years of living on our dairy farm, I've started countless fires to burn brush and debris on our property.  However, until this year, I had never burned a field.

The last weekend in April, Matthew and I had a permit to burn a thirty-acre pasture for our dairy cows.  After careful inspection and consideration, Matthew started by burning a ten-acre rectangle that was boxed in by a dirt road on the west, a stream on the south and north end, and a marsh to the east.   On a Friday evening, he used a blow torch to light the dry grass near the dirt road.  Within minutes, the field was ablaze and smoke bellowed a hundred feet into the air.  It wasn't long before a fire warden and a couple of volunteer fire fighters came to the scene to investigate.  They stayed long enough to make certain the fire would be contained.  After Matthew showed them the two streams and the marsh, they were satisfied and left to check on another field fire in the area.

Our eight-year-old son, Walker, shadowed his father around the field.  He used a shovel to snuff out small flames and squelched the fire with buckets of water from the stream.  At supper time, our two younger children, Anna and Wyatt, and I brought a picnic supper to the field.  The five of us sat on top of a rock pile and contentedly munched on pizza, chips, and chocolate bars while we watched the fire rid the pasture of unwanted thatch.  The setting sun warmed our backs and Walker said, “This is the best night ever!”

Just before 7:00 pm., I took the children home for baths, books, and bedtime.  Matthew stayed until 10:00 pm to make certain the fire stopped where it should. 

Having successfully burned our first ten-acres, we made plans to burn another ten-acre-section on Saturday afternoon.  Sunny, blue sky with barely a ripple in the air made burning conditions ideal. 

At 2:30 pm, the children and I watched as Matthew took the blow torch and lit a twenty-foot-fire-line from the dirt road down toward the marsh.  This time our ten acre section had an open doorway to the north where there was a five-acre patch of evergreen trees.  We did not want to catch the island of trees on fire and have blackened, dead trees marring the field, so we kept a close eye on the northerly direction of the fire. 

The children and I picked a spot on the north side to have snacks and drinks, but within minutes we had to relocate because the fire steered towards us.  The slight breeze was pushing the fire towards  the tree stand we did not want to burn.  “Matthew,” I hollered, “We'd better pay attention!” 

“I know,” he answered. 

By now the line of fire stretched the distance of five telephone poles and was heading straight for the woods.  After sending the children to a safe area to play, Matthew and I began pounding our metal square shovels on the flaming grass.  Side by side we traveled down the fire line smothering the flames with our shovels.  When the tall grass caught on fire, the heat became too intense, and we had to back off until the fire reached shorter grass.  We barely noticed the sweat dripping off our fiery red faces.  Despite our efforts, the fire steadily advanced towards the woods.  Each time a spruce  tree burst into a ball of flames and black smoke, we thumped our shovels double time.

At one point when the fire seemed to be winning the battle, I said to Matthew, “Should we call someone to help us?”

 “Nope,” was his quick, firm response. 

There was no time to argue, and I resumed thwacking my shovel on the blazing ground.  We focused our attention on the line of fire which reached hungrily towards the evergreen stand.  One foot at a time we tamped out the flames just before they crept under the trees.  We traveled down the fire line and smothered every spark we could find and retraced our steps to squash sneaky flare ups.

By 5:00 pm, the field fire had been extinguished.  We gathered the children and headed  home.  Covered with black soot from head to toe, the five of us looked like we cleaned chimneys for a living.  In addition, Matthew had singed the hair off his forearms, blistered his lips, and dried out his eyeballs.  “I'm all done with field fires,” he said as he wearily walked to the barn to milk the cows for the evening shift.

That night, I told Mom and Dad about our field fire experience.  Without skipping a beat, Dad said, “You should have called us.  We would have helped you.”

On Sunday morning, Mom and Dad came over to help me service our snowmobiles for summer storage.   Before leaving, Dad asked, “Are you going to burn any more fields?” 

“ We have ten acres left to burn, but after yesterday, I don't think we're ready to do that again.”

Dad looked up at the brilliant blue sky and said, “You couldn't ask for a better day to burn.  I'll help you if you want to finish burning the field.”

The next thing I knew, Mom agreed to take care of the children, while Matthew, Dad, and I drove to the field armed with shovels,  rakes, and gloves.            

The last ten acres was bordered by a dirt road to the west, a brook to the north,  a marsh to the east, and deciduous trees marking a  property line to the south.  Knowing we didn't want the fire to jump to our neighbor's field, Dad surveyed the scene, took note of the slight breeze, and said, “We need to start the fire in this corner of the field and steer it to the north.” 

Then he told us to start raking the tall grass down to the dirt to make a path for the fire to follow.   The path would help us prevent the fire from escaping into the hardwood boundary line. 

When our trail was finished, he told Matthew to light the grass.  Using only a lighter, he ignited a fistful of grass instead of using a blow torch to light a twenty- foot- fire line.  Working with a smaller burn area allowed us greater control and gave us plenty of opportunity to pounce on wayward flames.      When the fire headed obediently in the right direction, we released the reins and the fire raced across the field in record time. 

The three of us worked to halt the fire with our square metal shovels when it reached the marsh.  Towering spruce trees bordered the wet land, and we didn't want the trees to ignite and have the intense heat start jumping from treetop to treetop.  In less than two hours the ten acre field was burned,  and the last spark was stamped out.

Field fires can be fickle, unpredictable, and destructive if unchecked.  Dad showed us how to boss a field fire around and put it in its place.  The once brown and overgrown field we burned has been transformed into a lush, green

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