No one knew I was the reason for it. At the moment they weren't concerned with who was. All they wanted to do was help & save, flee & survive-- not find the culprit.
But yet there I was, the guilty party in the arms of heroes, under the canopy of safety, while others suffered because of what I had started.
It was a small fire, for no other reason than to have one. I had no fish to fry, no need to keep warm. I just like the smell and the pop and the power, I guess. And all it took was an errant eye and wandering responsibility and one strong gust of wind through a forest of pervading thirst and delicate dryness, to turn the small pile of poorly arranged dead wood and twigs I was burning into a blaze that cut through, at break-neck speed, anything and everything that would have it, as a pack of hungry mongrel strays would an unattended outdoor feast.
I watched the television, sipping on a hot coffee, swaddled in an emergency woollen comforter, as the news stations report on the spreading fury.
"The fire had jumped the river and was coming for our campground," said one witness that was now rescued.
I saw her children huddled with their father beside their SUV. Then the thought came to me that I, not the fire, could've been why one was not there with them.
I started to think everyone knew I was the one that set it all off, but no one came at me shaking fist or slinging slurs and threats.
The television cut between footage of 100ft flames flanking a highway that seemed to disappear in the heavy smoke produced and cars jammed, some deserted in the ditch, on a two-lane stretch of the only road out of there. Those recording it were at a precarious vantage point and I thought how stupid it was to risk their lives for a few as-close-ups as they could get. Then I thought how it was not they that put themselves in a position of danger, that it was I that did. They were doing their jobs, and I was the 'how stupid'.
I knew there was a possibility this could happen when I started out earlier in the day, and I paid it no mind. I figured that I was in control.
From the television came word that evacuation orders had been issued for a city close by, and that we too, in the rescue/community centre, were not safe and would have to move. They said the fire could not be controlled and that it could push, "under the right circumstances", well into not only the city, but the next province within two or three days. How foolish a phrase it was to hear the commentators say, "under the right circumstances".
"The arid conditions were perfect for the wildfire to spread" was another one I hated hearing the newscasters say over and over and over. It increased my well deserved guilt and shot my nerves into a maelstrom of jagged initiative. "I should be out there!" I said-- getting up and spilling my coffee all over my comforter that really wasn't mine but that was given me to do with whatever I needed.
"It's okay, sir. There are trained professionals out there doing what they can. People are getting out of the way. Now if you'll please gather your belongings and get ready to leave." said a soft voice from behind me. I didn't want to turn to see the face that spoke it. And all that registered was, 'leave'.
"But..I..." I couldn't say it. The words were there but not the will. I had to remain unbound to my gross recklessness. There would be nowhere else to go if I did. No one to console me or ask if I needed anything or if I'm alright.
I went outside for a cigarette, and when I looked North all I could see was a distorted sky of black clouds that became grey and white as it rose high and away from the concentrated core of the fire. The cherry on the end of my smoke glowed as I sucked back-- the same as the inferno I saw on the television-- and I was disgusted. That red and black illumination of consumption made me ill and I threw my smoke down and stepped it out, streaking a black mark on the pavement beneath my boot.
Back inside I continued on watching the television, but not for more than a few dozen seconds at a time. I thought back to what the woman said about trained professionals, and how the ones watching and transmitting the enormous ravening bane, were labelled professionals too, but that they weren't actually helping. They were just conveying and reporting the crisis, taking cues from their bosses that sat in offices somewhere, telling them to get closer, to get that award winning shot. The thought made me forget none of this would have been happening if it weren't for me. Then from the speakers came reports that the fire was not natural, that anything other than lightning designated the fire as man-made.
I peeled away from the images on the screen and I could feel every muscle and bone and organ in my body get tight with a cold feeling of dread and culpability. Stay quiet, I said to myself. No one saw you, no witness' to point you out, keep calm and stay quiet. Over and again I repeated those words to myself in no more than a mumble under my breath, trying to settle the anxious shake in my hands and pace the frantic thumping of my heart.
Now I can't turn from the television. It was my 10 Hail Marys and 5 Our Fathers. My silent admittance and bill of contrition I had to tend to.
The screen and absent voices briefed viewers of how the fire spreads so quickly. That once the sparks start catapulting from one tree's crown to the next containment becomes a dire exercise. It made me think that now, in place of preventative action and suppression, how prayers for heavy rain must flood heaven's gate in a time like this.
The screen also projected images of the aftermath: large patches and mounds of soot and ash and scorched earth, a dry lightning that formed and circled above the rapidly advancing aggression, and the black bare and frail trees that looked like wilting used matches waiting to return as charcoal pieces to the forest floor from where they sprung. My eyes hurt.
I remember it starting. The wind, as it came in a kind of North Western way, whistling towards me. And from the corner of my eye, the flames of my fire flutter and dip with its blowing. It wasn't until I heard the crackle behind me, and seeing smoke where there should be none, that I realized there was a problem. It had ignited too many spots and the wind induced too quick a escalation for me to remedy and once the dry branches and thirsty forest floor got going, partnering with the North Western kind of wind, there was nothing I could do alone to stop it.
The swelling heat pushed me back, told me to leave. To get in my truck and take off. And I did. I ran. And then I drove. But it wasn't far enough.
I thought after driving for an hour I would be a good enough distance to anonymously call it in and that would be the end of it. Someone would know what to do and get it all sorted out. But by the time I stopped at a remote service station it had already made the news and people were being told to clear out. It had grown greatly in that hour, eating and eating while I sped away, starving for easy fuel as the earth did for water.
Now, half a day removed from when it started, night was beginning to pull its blanket over the land, an all enveloping blanket that could not serve to choke the fire dead with deprivation of wind and O2. It would only add to the cherry-end illumination of the sprawling fire that I fear will not find satisfaction with ease, under these conditions. ©