Unexpected Flames

November 5, 2007
By Sarah Melia, Montpelier, VA

A problem is like a fire. It can start slowly, something seemingly minor the source - a cigarette tossed from a car window; a stove left unattended - yet can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation, causing damage to homes, property, and lives. But while the fire itself may not be preventable, the extent of the flames and of the damage often depends on what we do - our actions. Our problems don't have to consume us like the flames of a fire if we don't let them.

My first encounter with a real, uncontrolled fire came this past February. Before, I had only known the small flames of candles and the scene of roasting marshmallows by a campfire; it was all romanticized and not a perceived threat. But when the woods near our house began to burn on that especially windy winter afternoon, my perception of fire quickly changed.

It was my mother who first noticed something was amiss. As she sat at the kitchen table, looking out the window, the yard began to "fog" up. Of course, this didn't make any sense. It was mid-afternoon, dry outside and the temperature unseasonably warm for winter. Fog during these conditions was unlikely, so that meant the haziness outside the window had to be...


My mother soon called me to the door and told me to walk into the woods. Something was burning, she said. As I rushed outside and down the porch steps, a large dark ash flew past my fast. Running to the edge of the woods, I peered past the trees and caught glimpses of red in the distance: a row of flames between our neighbors’ house and ours. But from that vantage point it was unclear just how far the flames were, or how much of the woods was burning. So I ran along between the trees on the trail horizontal to the flames, keeping an eye on the red blur to my right. I winded the corner and raced up the hill, meeting the clearing of the power lines. To the right, farther up the trail, I saw the fire. There was a burning line four yards away from where I stood, the flames reaching no higher than my thighs, but flames nonetheless. Beyond them, where the neighbors' house should have stood: only smoke - and a lot of it. It was unclear how much of the woods had burned, and if the neighbors were in any danger.

I put my hand over my face and raced back to where my mother and sister now stood in the driveway, trying not to tax my body too much - I already felt smoke in my throat and lungs. I remember saying the woods was on fire. We were about to call 911 when we heard the whining siren of the fire engine through the woods as it came down the street. Someone had already called. Yet now, looking up, a rushing stream of smoke blew above our heads and warm air across our faces. It was then we all panicked. Realizing we were in the line of fire and uncertain of its intensity or the safety of the neighbors, the three of us - in a frenzy of confusion and panic - piled into the car and drove up our gravel lane and then down the street to where our neighbors’ house sat by the road. I was relieved to see it untouched, the neighbors safe, and the fire rescue team there, hoses out, putting out the flames.

It was only a brush fire, we soon learned. We had overreacted. The fire never came within reach of our property. With the uncertainty of the smoke, we just hadn't known. But later, as the firefighters doused the last of the flames, I couldn't help wondering just how easily that brushfire could have escalated into something more dangerous. If the neighbors had not called for help when they did - if help had not come until 30 minutes or an hour later, the damage would have been significantly greater and the fire so much harder to put out. In that way, a fire is a metaphor for a problem we face in life. The longer we go before addressing it, the bigger the problem will become, the harder it will be to solve.

Later, as I revisited the burnt ground and walked through the ashes, I tried to think of those unexpected flames in a positive way. Yes, fires can be destructive; but they can also be beneficial. Periodic fires can help a forest stay healthy by burning off
undergrowth and clearing the way for new growth to take root. And minor fires help prevent larger, more destructive fires by burning off the fuel on the ground that causes them to grow and spread. So forests are resilient. They grow back when little problems come their way. Not only that, but they make the best of the flames, and grow beyond. People can be like that too, except sometimes it takes longer to heal from the burns of the crises that affect us.

So what do we do when unexpected flames creep too close to home? How do we respond to the uncertainty of the smoke that surrounds us when these problems enter our lives? Do we flee them? Do we try to run away? Or do we simply turn our backs in an attempt to ignore them? This is what our instincts tell us: to avoid the unexpectedness and the uncertainty that come with fires. So we take preventive measures to halt disaster before it strikes. But sometimes disaster is unavoidable. Sometimes the winds blow strong and hard and on us, inevitably carrying the flames to our doorstep and accentuating them. Yet we needn't let them be a threat. And we should not panic or ignore these flames. Instead, we should call for help. With the aid of others we can extinguish the fires we may not be able to put alone. We can face them and encircle them, control them and douse them with water. The smoke will clear, though it takes time, and life will go on. There will be damage, of course; but if we can rise above the burnt ground, have the resilience of a forest and actually use the ashes of the past to grow towards the future - then we have endured the flames, and won.

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