March 19, 2012

Bonfire Anxiety

We have this family tradition of having bonfires on the solstices and equinoxes, and with the spring equinox coming up you'd think I'd already be inviting friends and family over to toast marshmallows this week. But we're just getting over being sick (the baby still is, technically), and I'm more overworked than usual. Normally even those factors wouldn't make us shy away from a shindig—sometimes celebration's the best medicine—except that we experienced an unusually traumatic fire just over a week ago—one that puts all previous bonfires to shame for its scale, timing, and impact.

Almost everyone's lives have been touched by fire, if not literally then remotely. The mass media has brought the regular forest fire seasons that have threatened arid landscapes in the Western U.S. into people's living rooms, and many know someone who's been personally affected. But fewer have actually experienced a unplanned, urgent, uncontrollable fire for themselves. Lightning strikes are the sort of thing that causes life-threatening damage so infrequently that mention of them goes the way of the mythical. You see trees on the trail that have been hit by strikes, you hear of far-removed stories but they hardly ever touch our lives.

But both finally hit home (literally) for me last week when, after having been struck by lightning at approximately 11:30 pm last Saturday, 1500 of my suegro's (father-in-law's) hay bales burned down to the ground in one night. With my baby daughter and I and several family members looking on (ironically, at first, in the rain), my husband and his brothers attempted, in vain, alongside the city fire department and several good Samaritan neighbors, to put out an enormous fire that started with too much force to ever really have a chance to be stopped.  Luckily, the fire was totally contained—the only other damage was an underground electrical register box that got crushed by the trucks that approached the fire, and they did manage to save some alfalfa and sorghum. But the once imposing mountain of baled corn stalks was brought down—a year's worth of work and harvest reduced to a paltry pile of sodden and ash stained compost. I've been recalling the incident ever since, and I don't think I'll ever see a weenie roast again in the same light.

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As traumatic events always do, the event and its aftermath resulted in drawing people closer together. Memories are made. Others are recalled by the elders. My suegro's stories of people he'd known who were actually killed by lightning in the cornfields they worked decades ago. My grandmother told me more of her own personal tragedy of her family losing their barn when their house and barn were struck by lightning when she was eight years old...a story I had an inkling of, from a poem she'd written, but never heard many details about. In a chilling twist to the pre-lightning strike part of the story, my two brothers-in-law (cuñados) told us that they were atop the pile of bales only minutes before lightning struck, on a ladder and crawling around up top struggling to cover the bales with a tarp to protect them from the rain. It was perhaps the only silver lining to this particular incident that they themselves were not the victims.

Outside my house this moment, nine days later, a water truck is pumping 5,000 liters of water into the water tanks that our families share that are housed in our shed. The tank was drawn down from my husband's valiant but pathetic efforts to counter the fire with garden hoses before the fire department arrived, and the city's supply hasn't been enough to top it back up. My cuñado, a man who I once got along with famously in the States, but since moving to Mexico has been a tougher pill to swallow, is also there, recounting the story of last week to the water truck man. Even though we've had our differences, they're transcended by the sadness of tragedy, and one memory from that night rises above the rest for me. The four brothers had finally given up trying to fight the fire and were standing shoulder to shoulder facing the fire, watching helplessly as the fire trucks dumped countless liters of water on the fuming bales. Everyone present had been drawn together by forces of nature, and were completely forced to relinquish all control, as part of us all went up in those flames.

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