Children displaced by fire

The town where I grew up was protected by a volunteer fire department. There was a large stone garage in the center of town with a bell tower. The bell was no longer used. It had been replaced by a siren that was installed before I was born. The siren was blasted every day at except Sunday at noon to make sure that it was kept in continual working order. As an aside, in our first parish after graduating from seminary, the noon whistle also blew on Sundays. Our congregation met at 11 am except during the summers. It was a signal that it was time to end worship that could not be ignored. When it was used as a fire whistle, it would ring three times in a row to call out the volunteers. Volunteers left work or whatever they were doing and rushed to the fire station to staff the trucks and fight the fire.

One day we heard the fire whistle while we were in school. Instead of the usual three times, it rang five times. We’d heard that special extra ring before when there had been especially large fires reported. A while later it rang a second time to call for additional firefighters. We had never heard it ring a third time, which was supposed to be the sign that every able-bodied man should report for duty. I think it rang five or more times. At some point we saw the principal consulting with our teacher at the front of the classroom. Shortly afterward the school bell rang and we were told that there was a large fire heading towards town. We were to go directly home. We were not to stop and play or visit with our friends. Everyone was to go directly home. The busses were already in front of the school and those who rode busses were to get right on their bus and listen to what the driver said.

We lived a block from the school and as I went out the door of the school, I could see huge clouds of smoke barreling from the top of airport hill. It was terrifying in part because on top of that hill was the airport and my father was the head of the airport. All of his airplanes were parked there. When we got home, our mother said that they had taken the big tilt-bed truck with the crawler tractor and several other new tractors with tillage equipment from the shop to cut fire breaks to protect the hangers and airplanes. Our father was helping fight the fire, but he was being careful and safe. We were told that we had to stay inside the house just in case we needed to evacuate. We never did. The fire was stopped at the top of the hill. The buildings and airplanes at the airport escaped damage. There was a little damage to some of the tractors and a couple of firefighters suffered minor burns. One had been taken by ambulance to Billings for treatment.

A few days later we flew over the area that had burned. It looked really big to me. We could see where the fire had started, near a road and how it has spread out to fill most of the area between two rivers. It was burning straight towards the place where those two rivers converged and probably would have been halted by the rivers, but our town and our home was in that area left unburned where the two rivers come together.

Later, I learned to fight stubble field fires. We carried barrels of water with gunny sacks in them on the farm trucks. When smoke was spotted, we rushed to the spot and fanned out in rows to attack the flames with wet gunny sacks. The wheat stubble was usually ignited by a carless farmer, who parked a truck with a hot muffler in the stubble left behind when the combines cut the wheat. I learned to put a wet bandanna over my mouth and nose to make it easier to breathe in the smoke and to never face directly into the wind, but rather fight the sides of the fire. I never worked a fire that had grown to more than a couple of acres.

Today I am praying for the children of the devastating fires that a are ravaging the American West. More across burned in a single day in Washington yesterday than the total acreage of wildfires in that state in 2019. Over 2 million acres have burned in California. Entire towns have been overrun by fire and destroyed. Smoke from the fires have turned the skies orange over much of the western third of the country. Children have been forced to evacuate their homes at a moment’s notice. Life in the shelters is hectic with people wearing masks because of fear of the virus while trying to get news on what has burned and what has escaped. Wildland firefighters are in short supply and structure firefighters often don’t make it to the buildings ignited by embers from the fires.

Great God, you know the devastating scope of the wildfires that had charred millions of acres and overrun everything in their paths. You know how our people have feared out of control fires for generations. We have heard of hell described as a place of never-ending fire. In these days of so many out-of-control fires burning across a large area of our country, we ask you to be with the children who are displaced by the fires. Calm their fears. Reassure them that they are loved. Comfort them in their grief over lost toys, lost homes, lost schools, lost pets and lost ways of life. Strengthen their parents and caregivers for the tasks of relocating, rebuilding and returning to family stability.

Be with those who are crying out of fear. Be with those whose parents are also on the edge of tears because of fear and grief. Give them your peace that passes all understanding.

And, gracious God, inspire us to do what we can to contribute to their recovery. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!