I walked across the scorched earth among the burning trees and felt like the last man standing after the apocalypse. Around me there were crackles and pops and hissing as the last of the living things exploded and burned. Fire had come with an appetite and it laid waste to all in its path.
Of course, this was a mere woods fire and the devastation was limited to grass, leaves and dead tree limbs. Occasionally, the flames come with just enough savagery to remind us all that it rules us rather than the other way around.
It’s a wonder, really. We can split atoms, fire machines through the air and land them on comets and build super fast microchips the size of a tick’s eye. Yet one of the oldest elements in the universe still confounds us. When fire gets its blazing fingers on something and finds it good, there is little we can do about it.
When I was a boy, there was a neighborhood kid who sneaked out his bedroom window one night so he could resume partying at a house a block away. He drank and smoked alone into the wee hours, perhaps grumbling at how unfair it was that his parents wanted to exert such control over him.
The kid fell asleep with a cigarette, caught the bed on fire and perished in a wall of flames that burned through the upper floors of his sanctuary. For days, other kids would walk to the scene of that grisly death and look upon the charred remains of the house. For us, it was a glimpse into the pit of punishment. Our childish imaginations insisted on conjuring the sights and sounds and physical sensations as we imagined what it would be like to die by fire.
My godmother died in flames after she returned to her burning home to retrieve a doll collection. I imagine the horror of that death too, imagining her ablaze as she ran screaming, lost and in pain, with an armful of melting dolls.
There is little reason to wonder why fire has become the avatar of man’s vision of hell. With fire comes immense destruction and unspeakable pain. It has always been both friend and foe to our species. We cook by it and it lights our way, but there have also been those who set out to cleanse perceived demons by burning people on stakes of wood.
A half-million years after prehistoric man learned to use fire for his own gains, we are still mesmerized by it. When a house burns downtown, hundreds of people will gather to watch. Some will drive from a distance and bring their children. The destruction it wreaks is swift and indiscriminate. The most powerful man on earth can construct the grandest home with his awesome wealth, and it will still be reduced to rubble if fire wants it.
As the songwriter says, fire is the devil’s only friend.
So, the week of the burnings, when fire moved across the region almost logically, like a traveling magician, people stopped and took notice. They smelled smoke and something primitive in them recoiled. Because as enthralling as it is to watch the flames – of a blazing house or a campfire – we know that fire can take away everything.
In Turner, walking the burned path left behind by the hungry flames was like strolling the landscape of a burned and ruined world. My imagination gets to me. For a few moments, I was time traveling. I was the only homo sapien on the planet after the comet struck and wiped out the dinosaurs. Or I was the only witness left after man finally went too far with his technology and scorched the entire race. In the beginning there was fire, and so fire marked the end.
Or some such thing. It was a surreal moment. And I imagine it was surreal in Auburn, Bethel and all the other towns where fire was once again proving its dominance over man. And it all reminds me once again what they say about those who make careers out of battling ancient force: Where all others run from the flames, firefighters run toward it.
Firefighters are an incredible breed. They wade into oceans of fire to save people and property. They voluntarily take on a force from which the rest of us instinctively flee. They are able to battle flames because they understand them. But understanding fire leads to the knowledge that you can never defeat it, just maybe knock it down for another day. Fire will exist long after the rest of us have vanished into memory.
So, I’m waxing poetic about fire while my clothes still smell like smoke from the latest inferno. I have no point, really. Just the healthy respect for fire and the people who go to war against it when called upon.
Mark Laflamme in the Sun Journal crime reporter.