Monday, October 11, 2010

Fire Safety Rules from 4 yr. old Lillie

Driving south on I-55 through Mississippi, blackened roadsides dotted the landscape. Mississippi- home to open pine woodlands with highly flammable grass-forb fuels- has posted "High Fire Danger" for weeks in a row. The highway department there has taken the responsibility of burning off roadsides along highly trafficked roads to allay the spread of wildfires started from a rogue cigarette butts tossed out of car windows. Rank grass still exists on the roadsides in some areas, as well as in the in tact pine-bluestem woodlands here, but as we entered the residential part of Hattiesburg where my camp friend Heather lives, the charred roadsides disappeared and big turf grass-filled yards of blooming impatiens and geraniums and pots of yellow chrysanthemums came into view.

(My friends in Southern states prefer to burn pine woodlands during Indian summer because it promotes forb diversity. Heather knows this, and knows that her little smidgen of woods behind the house would really appreciate a little fire, but she also fully recognizes her neighborhood association and the basic laws governing fire within city limits--i.e., residents can't burn woods in the middle of Hattiesburg, regardless of the fuel load.)

There are those precious moments that, as a child, many of us cherish: parents staying up late, enjoying adult beverages with old friends whom they haven't seen in many years, and, as a child, padding out in jammies to the edge of the living room to overhear what they're talking about, possibly being seen by said parent and then scolded, "go back to bed..." after being asked to perform a trick for dinner guests. "Do that thing you do. Play the piano, just one song. And then bed."

We didn't see Lillie that night in Hattiesburg. Heather's kids are so well behaved, I doubt either Lillie or Madeline ever leave the confines of their rooms to sneak up on their parents; they went to bed around 8, maybe 9 that night that we rolled into town with my car leaking oil from a part unknown to any mechanic but a Honda-certified one.

Lillie must have overheard me talking to her mother about fire and her pine trees.

At some point in the night's conversation, I must have muttered to Heather that I had a dream burn unit, a scheme to burn off all the pine woodlands in her neighborhood all at once. She lives in historic longleaf pine savanna country, a landscape I cherish and know well (burn a high quality longleaf savanna in October, a savanna that hasn't been grazed to crap by cows and horses, and you'll likely end up with a landscape chocked with grass pink orchids in April. Great country, pine savanna, good sandy soils and cool little microhabitats associated within). Actually, because Heather was so distracted, I don't even know if I mentioned to her how fun it would be to burn off her neighborhood or if I just kept it to myself.

Nevertheless, the following morning, while waiting for Heather to take Madeline to school, Lillie casually asked me for her crayons. I found markers and colored pencils too numerous to count, so she used those instead.

"I'm going to teach you about Fire Safety. I know all the Fire Safety Rules that my teacher taught me."

Out of the blue, Lillie decided to teach me fire safety rules. Granted, I know fire, I know fire safety, I know fire ecology, I know fire behavior, I know the calculus associated with fire movement, how it moves upslope, fingers into coves, across a broad, flat plain and how one can protect oneself by running to the fire shadow if fire threatens one's personal safety.

Lillie must have heard me talking to her mother about fire. She simply must have come out late at night to listen to me wax about fire and ecosystems and the benefits of implementing natural disturbance factors blah blah blah.

"First!" she tells me emphatically, "don't play with matches!" Crap. I've already disobeyed Lillie's Fire Safety Rules.

"If there's a fire, stay low to avoid the smoke." I wanted to tell her this doesn't work in landscape-scale fires....but possibly in those nightmarish structure fires which I don't ever want to witness or be a part of, staying low is a good lesson. In woodland fires, just try not to be on the side of the fire of the wind direction. Someone has to be over there, so if you're a baby about smoke, be on the lee side. I don't mind smoke. I love it actually-- woods smoke, that is, but if it's a good old fashioned Ozark tire fire or burn barrel full of plastics emitting dioxin and other known carcinogens, I'll run far away. Burning plastics, one of the easiest ways Missourians contract cancer.

"Stop! Drop! and Roll!" she told me, a lesson I first learned in elementary school while absolutely paranoid that my parents' friends who smoked in our house would inadvertently cause a massive house fire (despite our humid weather and persistently wet carpet from keeping the windows open). Having been on fire a few times while wearing Nomex clothing, I think the very last thing one would want to do in a woodland or grassland setting is to roll around in live fuels. Smother the fire with your wonderful leather gloves. Please don't roll around while you're on fire surrounded by rank grass. That's a recipe for disaster. But regarding a structure fire, I see that the same lessons I was taught as a four year old in 1976 remain in place.

I clearly got over my fear of fires as a child, and now see few greater pleasures in life than laying down flames where they belong, burning high quality native ecosystems that depend on fire for their sustainability, ecosystems well outside the city limits of Hattiesburg and miles away from Lillie's bedroom filled with yellow and white ducks.


Anonymous said...

"Please don't roll around while you're on fire surrounded by rank grass." -- Oh my, what a mental image!

Enjoy the upcoming Natural Areas Conference - wish I could come.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the Hattiesburg days; use to stop and enjoy either Chesterfields or Conestoga..

Allison Vaughn said...

Hi there, Ted and Anonymous! (You're welcome to come on the float on that Thursday. I wouldn't ask anyone, even myself to pay the fees associated with that conference. Robbery).
Hattiesburg is neat. Downtown is really lively! And a stone's throw from new orleans!