Too Close For Comfort

It was a very windy day. I’d been awakened in the middle of the night by the North wind howling through the trees. It rarely builds overnight, so I knew it would be rough the next day. By late morning my mother went to see if conditions were any better for putting horses out back (we have several trees that are risky when winds are this high). She texted me that it was a dust bowl out back, so she decided not to put horses out yet. I pictured wisps of dust being kicked up by the tires of the golf cart, that is until I looked out the window. I could not even see the back of the property for the screen of particles in the air. Opening the door confirmed what I feared – that was not dust, it was smoke! My mother cannot smell, so was not aware that the murky screen was far more sinister than dust.

I immediately went out back to track down the source of the smoke. From our back field it appeared to be two doors down at a friend’s house. My mother heard sirens, but we could not see any fire trucks. We jumped into our golf cart and headed out to see if we could help our friend.

As we got to the road we could see that the fire was past our friend’s house, but very close. We picked up our next door neighbor and headed over to see how our friend was doing. By this time fire engines were coming from both ends of the road and neighbor’s were out in the street keeping wary eyes on the encroaching smoke.

The “dust bowl”

We arrived at our friend’s property but there was no sign of him. From behind their house we got our first look at what was going on. The fire was encompassing at least four different properties, including the properties directly North and West of our friend’s property. The North wind blew the thick black smoke straight at us, making it hard to breath. I felt the burn of ash blowing into my eyes. We all determined that by then the firemen were well located to guard our friend’s property, and they did not seem to be home, so we went back.

After dropping off our neighbor we returned to our barn. The horses were clearly distressed by the smoke and noises, with frequent vocalizations echoing through the barn. Coffee and Chase were perfectly positioned to watch the situation unfolding and Chase was too upset to eat. We gave everyone some higher value food to distract them and it seemed to work. While we were settling the horses I heard our neighbor yell that their field was on fire.

The smoke plume growing behind our barn

I ran behind the barn and could see our neighbor grabbing a hose to attack the fire that had started. We quickly turned on our arena sprinklers should we need to move the horses out of the barn to a safer location. Our neighbors were soon joined by sharp-sighted fire fighters, and I then noticed that there was now a truck on the property we’d visited earlier. Had the fire spread to that property, too? I could not see clearly, but took comfort in the fact that the firefighters were there looking over our friend’s property.

We decided it was a good time to do a run around the back of the property to check for our own potential hot spots. As we toured around the back we could see that we were now surrounded by fire trucks stationed on every property around us. The column of smoke was still thick and black, but seemed to be contained to the same general area. As we circled back to the barn I could see that the hot spot at our neighbor’s was out and being monitored. That was all reassuring, until I rounded a corner and saw a rising column behind our barn.

My first thought was that I was seeing a dust devil being kicked up by the howling winds. But I quickly realized that it was not moving and was growing more steady as we approached. The column of smoke was coming from Noble’s paddock! I dropped my mother at the back of the barn to grab the hose while I sped to the front to turn it on. I hurried to the back to help feed the hose into Noble’s paddock. He’d run to the end of his paddock, clearing our path to attack the dried manure that was smoldering.

As my mother sprayed down the smoldering pile, I heard a voice. “Is someone there?” Looking around the corner I saw three fire fighters leaning over the fence. They’d seen the column of smoke and came to help. “We’ve got it,” I said. “Running water on it and it seems to be going out.” They replied, “Good job! Keep it up!”

We soon could see fire trucks positioned on properties on all sides of us

At that moment I realized another fire fighter was on our side of the fence, coming to check out the smoke. When he saw it was under control, he scanned the rest of the property looking for other signs of hot spots. He gave his colleagues and “All clear!” then turned to us. “Just keep checking the rest of the day,” he said, “They can pop up at any time.” “Will do!”

When we felt the smoldering pile was sufficiently doused, we moved back through the stall with Noble close on our heels. He’d very wisely moved outside when the smoke started outside his stall, but clearly was looking for comfort from the day’s trauma. His actions contradicted the common wisdom that horses would want to stay in their stalls for safety in the case of a fire. The smoke was just outside his stall door, yet he fled to the end of his paddock, in the open air and past the smoke.

It was another hour before the main column of smoke reduced to a mere whisper. Reports are that a large building burned down, and photos show a large pile of debris that must have fed the fire for all the hours it lasted. We spent the afternoon making periodic tours of the property. No more columns of smoke appeared on or near our property. The fire trucks eventually dwindled, but a few still remained as it got dark.

As the smoke died, Noble moved closer to us, keeping an ear turned to the fire fighter checking out our back field.

Few things are as sobering as disaster on your doorstep. The fire burned a total of five acres – a small amount by comparison to many of our wildfires, but double the size of our property. I have no doubt I will see my neighbor out mowing his field this weekend, and I will be finding ways to deal with every bunch of dried grass the horses have dealt with. I was comforted by the response and attention of the fire fighters. We even had a tanker helicopter ready to do a drop if needed. But this incident has me looking at ways to make all of our property more accessible to the trucks.

The responses of the animals were interesting to note. Although disturbed by the smoke and activity, our horses were nonetheless responsive to us in positive ways. It gives me confidence that we stand a chance of handling such situations with minimal danger to all. The dogs were further from the activity, but nonetheless disturbed. When my mother went to the house for supplies, they all wanted to go inside and did not want to come out again. Clearly we will need to plan that they will need luring, if not carrying, from the house should we have to evacuate.

We’ve all heard it – whether for hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, or other natural disasters – have a plan! I’ve had a plan I’ve been working on in my head. Today was proof that we need to do more to solidify the plan, to the extent we can. Hopefully you already have such a plan.

Be good to your horses – and stay safe out there!


What remained of Noble’s smoldering poo pile

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