Story of the Month
The title of this month’s story is …
The Great Fire of Bentley Falls
By Brenda Short
Challenge – If it hadn’t rained that night, everything would have turned out differently.
In the weeks leading up to the fire, there had been a drought. It began in May when the temperatures rose to an all-time high. It wasn’t unusual to have a long, dry spell in the summer months, but this summer had been unusually hot, with no relief for weeks. By mid-July we were under a mandatory water rationing edict – no washing the car – no watering the plants, or the grass in particular – short showers or shallow baths of no more than five inches. There was no chance of saving the lawn. Even my carefully tended tomato plants fell victim eventually.
The summer wore on with no relief in sight and only clear, blue skies with nothing more than an occasional fluffy, white cloud. One positive thing about this oppressive heat was that the mosquito population had seemed to dwindle to only a few hardy souls that appeared in the early evening, just as things were cooling off a little. At last, I was able to walk the dog around the neighbourhood with little or no discomfort. Normally, I would have come back from such a walk with several uncomfortable bites that would bother me for days. Sad to think that my priority was with the lack of mosquitoes, while others were suffering so terribly from the heat.
I was one of the fortunate people. I had air-conditioning – in my house – in my car – in my workplace, but I had great sympathy for those who had none of that. We were a small community of around sixteen hundred people and it was important to look out for each other. All of the government offices, including the local library began to display bottles of drinking water on their counters – free to anyone that needed them. The library and recreation centre, along with the town offices were all designated as cooling centres and anyone who was suffering in the heat was encouraged to come in and cool off.
Of course, to counteract the heat, the public pool was the place to be but was so full of people by mid-afternoon each day, that the number of swimmers had to be restricted for safety. My lawn was non-existent now, all brown and dried out. Even the family dog was refusing to use his favourite toilet spots in the garden and had resigned himself to evacuating his bladder and bowels on my newly installed deck instead. He was quite determined, it seemed, not to set foot on the prickly, dead, odourless grass that had once been my pride and joy and would now take weeks of dedication and much TLC to recover its once lush appearance.
When I had chosen my house several years before, I hadn’t thought to consider which way the garden faced. It was all about the windows, wasn’t it, and which bedrooms would get too much sun in the middle of the day? Who would think that a lawn needed shade to protect it from the ravages of the sun? It hadn’t really been a problem with drought-resistant grass and regular watering. But that stopped in July and now, I had a barren landscape of wheat-coloured grass and was beginning to worry about the health of my trees.
Other communities were suffering similarly, and most of the province was on fire alert. And then it happened! There was a wildfire reported in one of the National Parks, thought to have been started by a spark from a prohibited campfire that got out of hand, but it was a long way away from us, so no reason to worry, was there? But, before long it was growing quickly and there was a concern that it could move in our direction. What were the chances though?
The forests were tinder dry and as a result, the fire had become a monster, fanned by strong winds and moving across wide swaths of forestry. Within days, firefighters were being drafted in from other provinces and from the US to help subdue this fire. They seemed to be making a difference and the news reports were positive, claiming that the fire would soon be under control. Then the wind changed direction and the fire rose up, quickly growing out of control again and suddenly…we were directly in the path of the flames!
The mayor appeared on the local television station, voicing his concern and asking everyone to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. After suppertime, the whole town fell silent as police cars began patrolling the streets, telling everyone to evacuate on their loudspeakers. We had only a few hours to pack up and leave, not a lot of time to look back on our lives and decide what to take with us – separate what was invaluable and irreplaceable from what was just ‘stuff’.
I packed the car with my laptop, my clothes, some snack food, and a case of water. All of my photographs had been saved onto memory sticks and so I didn’t have to waste precious time looking for them, but I decided to make space for my artwork, some precious knick-knacks, and of course, my dog and his bed. He would travel with me on the front seat, not his normal spot, but he already knew there was something going on and was fretting, running in circles around my legs and making funny noises. At least in the front seat, he would be comforted by my proximity.
The sun went down that evening, but there was still an eerie glow in the night sky that sent a shiver through me as I realized that the fire was real and imminent. I thought I could smell smoke, even inside the house with the door closed. Did I smell smoke? Maybe not – that could have been my imagination. I convinced myself that there was still time for the fire to change direction again and our town would be saved. I stood in the middle of my living room, closed my eyes, and prayed long and hard that this would all go away. I wasn’t religious anymore, but it made me feel better – comforted to repeat the words, so long buried in my past.
A cup of tea would be a good idea now. I didn’t know when I would have my next cup, so I plugged in the kettle and tidied the kitchen while I waited for it to boil. Why was I tidying when my house was about to burn down? Suddenly, the lights flickered and the power went out. Drat! No tea for me. I guess it was time to leave, but then there was a flash that illuminated the room, followed by an ear-splitting thunder crack. Was that…rain? I felt my way carefully around the furniture in the pitch black of the living room, making my way toward the window. It was raining heavily by the time I reached the window. More lightning and thunder filled the night sky and now, to my great relief, rain was battering against the window, but would it last? I stood there rooted to the spot as I watched the water running down the glass in a stream, illuminated by the orange glow. It rained heavily for the next two hours and then tailed off to a drizzle that lasted all night. God had answered my prayers and sent a magnificent rain storm to save us from the fire. I really should think about going back to church. After all, I owed her now.
Anyway, two days later on the national news there he was again, large as life – our narcissistic mayor once again telling the whole country how close the fire had come and how he had given the order for a mass evacuation that hadn’t actually taken place. “If it hadn’t rained that night, everything would have turned out differently,” said the mayor. He preened and purred in front of the cameras, enjoying the exposure to millions of viewers on national television as the reporters clamoured to get closer, thrusting recorders and microphones in front of him. We were still big news it seemed, our little town – catapulted into the mainstream media because of a wildfire and its proximity to our community, but fortunately, the thunderstorm had all but extinguished the fire and we had narrowly avoided evacuation.
Our mayor was using this situation as a campaigning opportunity and if he could have taken credit for the rain, he would have. One thing that he couldn’t take credit for though was the huge block party that the neighbourhood held, lighting up the sky again with fireworks, but this time for a happier reason.
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