The fire took off like a freight train

Bill Packard: Open Burning

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 2:30pm

The State of Maine allows open burning. That means that with a permit you can burn brush or grass. It’s a great way to get rid of blowdowns or building lumber scrap or the dead grass in the spring in the field areas on your property. Things are different now, but back in the day the Fire Chief, Assistant Chief, Town Office and other key people in town would be able to write permits and folks would go to their houses or the office and pick up permits.

Burning is only allowed after 5 p.m. on weekdays as many department members work out of town and it doesn’t make much sense to give people permission to start a fire when your firefighters are not around.

Grass fires or out of control burns suck. That’s the only way to put it.  Most of the time, there is little danger to people and property, but the fire has to be extinguished.  Since they burn on several fronts and usually away from a road, the only way to get water on the fire is to carry it on your back.

From an officers’ point of view, the more difficult part of putting out a grass fire is keeping the firefighters organized and working together.  In a structure fire, you can (and should) easily keep track to everyone’s efforts.  Not so at a grass fire. The head of the fire will be moving along faster than a comfortable walk or possibly at the pace of a marathon runner when you find a firefighter emptying his Indian tank on a smoldering stump that will burn for hours in the middle of the burn area.  It’s like herding cats.  No matter how many times you go over it in training, year after year its individuals doing their own thing. 

Another thing that sucks about grass fires is that everything gets shut up. That happens in structure fires too, but usually not as much and you don’t’ feel as bad cleaning up when you saved a house instead of saving a couple acres of grass that should have burned anyway. But it’s all part of the deal.

Most of the burning is done in the spring and that’s also the time for school vacation. 

One year we responded to a grass fire during school vacation where several young boys were observed leaving the area on bicycles.  The fire was pretty minor and we discovered a little fire ring with the remains of a burned jacket in it.  Kids and fires that are set are serious and it’s important to investigate and intervene early if there is a need for further support. 

We located the boys who told us where they lived, but denied any knowledge of the fire.  With the jacket in hand, I went to one of the houses.  When Mom met me at the door, I identified myself and asked if this was he son’s jacket.  You can imagine her horror when she saw the jacket, but I assured her that he was OK, shared what had happened and asked for a meeting at the fire station  to which she agreed. 

Another of the boys was being raised by a single father who was upset to the point of suggesting different sorts of punishments for his son, but the Chief and I both suggested a meeting at the fire station.  His was scheduled for 4:30 on Friday afternoon.

All week long leading up to our Friday meeting, a citizen had been to every house and the Town Office trying to get a permit to burn during the day because he had help.  He was turned down at each place so resolved himself to burning on Friday evening at 5 p.m. 

We had a deal back then where citizens could rent Indian tanks for $1 a day when they were burning. The money went into a fund and whenever we had enough money, we’d purchase a new Indian tank.  Pretty good deal.

Friday evening at 5:05 as we were meeting with the young man and his father at the fire station, the tone went off for a grass fire at the location of the permitted burn that he’d been trying to do all week. Evenings and weekends that time of year, the firefighters usually hang around the station in the early evening or are close by so the young man and his father witnessed a speedy response and apparatus out the door.

The citizen had given no consideration for the wind and lit the fire at the road with a huge field on the opposite side of the road and the wind blowing across the road. The fire took off like a freight train, burned everything in its path and got into the pine trees at the woods. 

While it looked like a big deal upon arrival, it had pretty much burned all the fuel so other than the pine trees and mopping up in the woods, it was pretty routine. Except. In the middle of the burn up near the road were the two Indian tanks he’d rented with the straps burned off them. 

The Forrest Ranger had little interest in his excuse that he had to get started early even if the wind was blowing, because he had to wait all week to burn. As we were packing up, the citizen asked the Chief and I if he could get his $2 back as he hadn’t used the Indian tanks.  We answered him with a question; “Are you kidding?” Those are not the exact words we used.  We kept his $2.

Time moved on and several years later, I received a very nice invitation to an Eagle Scout ceremony.  I had no idea who the kid was. That evening, talking with the Chief, which I did many nights, he mentioned that he received an invitation to an Eagle Scout ceremony for someone he didn’t know. 

It took us a little bit to figure out it was the kid who years before on spring vacation along with some of his friends had decided to go on an adventure and have a campfire that got away from them. The ceremony was excellent as they all are, but the highlight of the evening was when the young man told us that we made a positive impression on him at that fire station meeting and we was grateful for what we had done. 

We had no idea. We were just being us.


More Bill Packard

Volunteer firefighting is one of the most rewarding, fun things anyone can do if they’re on a department with the right culture.  My hope is that these stories can create enough interest in even one person to join a local department and feel the satisfaction that comes from being a firefighter and understand what makes it so special.

Bill Packard lives in Union and is the founder of He is a speaker, author, small business coach and consultant.

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