Learning to love the power of fire

  Thick weeds, old lumber, and brush surround our house, about a mile of dirt road from St. Ignatius, Mont., and about 45 miles north of Missoula. Neighbors and friends, accustomed to rural ways, suggested a fire to clean things up a bit.

Despite childhood stints in the country, I am a Montana city person adjusting to country life, with "submersible pump" and "satellite television" just entering my vocabulary. "Controlled burn" is another new one.

Not everyone approves of using fire as a broom, what with the thick blue smoke and blazes that occasionally get off the leash. I understand. But on a recent blustery March morning, there were a dozen plumes in our valley's skies begging me to join them in smudging the sky. The clincher was that the snow had melted only a day earlier, making it safe for a burn.

I built a pile of brush, weeds and old wood as tall as I am, and -- safety first -- scratched a fire-break around the pile. After five or six matches, the fire erupted. I could hear and almost feel small explosions as the flames leapt through the thick pile, and I couldn't get closer than 10 feet. Then the blaze leapt my chintzy fire line and torched the weeds across the way.

Controlled burn indeed. What an oxymoron that phrase is! I ran for the hose as long flames flapped sheet-like over tall weeds in the direction of the house. When I got back a panicked minute later with a shovel and with the hose playing out behind me, the flames were half as long, and the wet weeds showed only a slight singe. My neighbors' homes and cars and pets were OK. I wouldn't have to call the fire department and my insurance company.

Controlled burns can destroy even when they don't escape. About 20 years ago, my family lived summers on a mountaintop in northern Idaho. One June morning, after days of dragging branches and brush together to clean our clearing, my mother set the pile ablaze.

Wearing a plaid shirt and wielding a rake, her long dark hair tied with a bandanna, she fed the flames all day. When the sun finally dipped to the tops of the pine trees, the pile had been reduced to cinders. It was then that she discovered her watch missing.

It was a simple, narrow watch with a small face, gold hands and a little chain at the clasp. It had been given to her by my father, and it came with a searing story. My mother comes of rough ranch stock, and when my grandmother -- her mother -- saw the watch, she said it was too good for my mom.

I knew the story, and that night -- I was 10 -- I crawled on hands and knees, sifting dirt with my fingers into the black night. The next day, a rake in the ashes hooked the watch, twisted and melted, with the hands and glass gone from the face.

In the end, the burned watch gave us a good family story, and it didn't hurt my parent's marriage: they're going strong after 31 years. I remembered the gold watch as I leaned on the shovel over my fire. When I wasn't lost in the flames, I fed and tended them. By evening the pile had shrunk to a broad bed of red coals. My place looked better, and I felt rural. With a shovel, I put the fire to rest.

Two days later in the early morning, the clouds tore themselves free of the craggy Mission Mountains and scattered to the east. With a shovel, I sifted the old ashes. Everything seemed cold, but a half-hour later I saw smoke rising.

Even after the wind died, the smoke remained, a thin line, like that from a cigarette. What the heck, I thought. The place was still a mess. So I laid a fistful of weeds over the smoking coals and, gently blowing, coaxed a flame to life. Soon I was piling on brush, and flames were leaping up.

I was burning again, burning because it was fun. It was fun because it was useful and because it had an edge. At any moment,I knew, it could stop being my tool and become my enemy.

My guess is that I'll burn every spring. It will become one of the rituals that keeps me in the country.

Robert Struckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes near Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.