The role of fire in my life


Many people love fire and enjoy watching the flickering flame of a candle as they meditate, or a roaring bonfire when cooking hot dogs on a stick.

We treasure the warmth of a fireplace and the smell of wood drifting across the neighborhood.

My wife Brenda and I love to place logs in our fire pit near the creek, add a fire starter, and then sit back and watch the flames dance along the wood like tiny fingers reaching toward the sky.

I want to pass my love of fire on to our grandson. When Jack visits again I am going to recruit him to assist me with a survival video, and instruct him how to build a fire in the rain or snow.

I have to admit; however, I have had a mixed record with fire.

One February evening, Brenda and I were in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. The temperature was freezing and a strong gale was blowing off the James River, striking us in the face as we walked backwards along the sidewalks to keep our faces from freezing.

Walking along the boardwalk, we passed elevated fire baskets with just enough fire to warm us. I noticed one basket that seemed to be struggling due to a lack of wood.

“I will put a little more wood in the basket,” I said to Brenda.

“Are you sure that is OK?” Brenda asked, knowing my history of starting fires.

I gathered two handfuls of large twigs and threw them in the basket. How was I to know the wood was green and the fire temperamental?

Within seconds the fire sounded like Rice Krispies. First, there was a huge snap, then a loud crackle, and then the wood began to start popping wildly.

The shopkeepers ran from their shops. The streetlights brightened as Brenda and I ran from the cold streets, quickly ducking into the warm blacksmith shop nearby.

“The fire sure feels good,” I said to the blacksmith. He nodded.

A few years later, I had another incident with fire. According to the Code of Virginia, 8.01-243, cases involving fire have a statue of limitations of five years … so I will share my story.

We were living in Staunton, Va. and Brenda had purchased a nice, handcrafted, clay chiminea for our backyard patio. I couldn’t wait to start a fire one late October evening, gather around the flame, and enjoy the warmth.

“That looks like a little too much wood in the chiminea,” Brenda said.

“I don’t think so. It will start to roar quickly once I light it,” I responded.

Unfortunately, the fire didn’t roar. It began to smolder with copious, white clouds of smoke, rising up through the trees and over the top of our garage.

The sound was faint at first, a faded moan in the distance.

“Do you hear a siren?” Brenda asked.

“Yes, but it sounds like it is going out South Coalter Street,” I replied.

Within seconds, I discovered instead the sirens were coming north directly toward our house. They grew louder and louder.

“C’mon, let’s get in the house!” I shouted to Brenda.

We looked out the windows and saw two fire trucks and police cruisers parked a few yards from our home with their lights flashing and radios blaring.

“I’m going out to see what’s going on,” I said.

Brenda just shook her head.

“What’s going on, officer?” I asked the young police officer.

“We think there is a fire in the neighborhood,” she replied. “You may want to go back into your house,” as a large spotlight shined over the rooftops illuminating the immense white smoke.

As we entered our front door, I saw our neighbor, Chuck, standing across the street. Saying nothing, he too only shook his head.

More recently, Brenda and I were staying in an Embassy Suites Hotel in Cleveland when we decide to pop some popcorn in our room. All went well until I accidentally pushed the button on the microwave for a second time.

Slowly the room began to fill with smoke. We both yelled at the same time – “The popcorn!” Luckily, neither the fire alarm nor the sprinkler system activated, which prevented the entire hotel from being evacuated.

Last week, I decided to burn incense, and placed a charcoal biscuit inside the incense holder. Normally, they burn slowly and only partially, but this time, the charcoal and the incense ignited as though dowsed with gasoline.

The smoke billowed from the basement. The smoke and carbon monoxide detectors sounded. Smoke filled the basement then made it’s way up the stairs, under the basement door, and into the living room.

“What’s going on?” Brenda yelled down into the basement.

“Nothing. I was just burning some incense,” I replied.

“Oh, my goodness!” she said. “Did your mother ever tell you, “Don’t play with fire, or you’ll wet the bed?”

“No. But I can see how that could be a dangerous combination,” I said, as I blew out the candle and went to sleep.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.

Pat Haley Haley

No posts to display