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Firefighter at Fourteen
My sister and my mom had gone up to Pendleton, OR, for a music camp my sister was going to for five days. It was a day camp, so my mom had to rent a hotel room with her. We live in eastern Oregon, near Burns, so they had a five-hour drive up there. Me and my father were left to fend for ourselves. Besides the usual chores that come with living on a ranch, we now had to feed ourselves, clean the house, do our laundry and water the plants as well as take on all of my sister’s chores she’d left behind. We were wiped out and eagerly anticipating the arrival of mom, so that we could drop all the house-related chores.
Sitting at dinner Saturday night – my sister and mom would be back the next afternoon – we’d just finished our dinner when my dad’s cell phone rang. It was Sarah at the dispatch office, reporting that there was a camper-trailer fire ten miles south of Princeton, or twenty miles from Crane, or forty miles from our house.
“You’re with the RFPA, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Yeah, we’ll be down there in a bit. But don’t count on speed,” Papa warned.
The RFPA is the Rangeland Fire Protection Association, used to put out grassfires and such in the rural area. We had no certification for structure fires, but we were the closest thing in an emergency. My dad awhile ago had gotten fed up with their lousy job of doing things, so he’d taken it upon himself to reform it. He’d gotten people involved, worked on fundraising, got fire trucks running and somehow managed to get himself elected fire chief. This was on top of his ranching duties, mind you.
He didn’t do it alone. My mom did all the bookkeeping. Our neighbors like Jerry and John and others helped with the mechanical work and parts and all. It was a team effort.
There had been a fire just that afternoon at four o’clock down by Lawen, a small place halfway from Crane to Burns, and Jerry had taken out a truck and put out the fire. The truck had gotten beat up on the bad roads, so he couldn’t take his vehicle. Everyone else haying – Papa had finished the mowing a few days ago, meaning he could rake starting tomorrow – Papa and I left the dishes on the table and went out and hopped in a truck. I came because my father doesn’t like leaving one of his kids at home alone without at least their sibling there, if not a parent.
Going along at fifty miles an hour, the noisy fire truck – I guess it’d be water truck, since it wasn’t a red fire truck, despite its pump and hoses… it was white, and not quite full sized, though still bigger than a pickup – rattling our brains out. I flipped the radio on, but we couldn’t find the channel, so Papa made sure his cell phone was on.
At about twenty miles to go the Burns-Hines Volunteer Fire Department zoomed past us. At about fifteen miles to go the Burns police officer zoomed past, light flashing.
“I’m not pulling over for you!” Papa yelled, though he knew they couldn’t hear us. “I’m going to the same fire as you! Pass me if you want!”
At about twelve miles to go the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) passed us. Slow and rickety though we were, we curbed around to see a smoking camper trailer in the middle of the road. The actual fire was gone, but the hot metal and embers had to be cooled so the smoke would die down. The sun was sinking and cars wouldn’t be able to see and might have a wreck.
We pulled up quickly and asked where we were needed. At first they told us to just spray the ground around it, so I climbed up on top, being the nimble fourteen-year-old I am in a group of inflexible adult men, and started hauling hose out of the coils.
Papa hosed down the area when the camper trailer burst into a fresh round of new smoke, unseen embers glowing quite visibly now. Papa ran to get a shovel to smother them with, handing me the hose. Not knowing what to do, I started spraying the trailer.
“In here!” One of the BLM firefighters said, pointing to the remains of a smoking refrigerator. I sprayed there while the Hines Volunteer guys dumped foam on the remains of the embers.
“Stand out of the smoke!”
“There! Hand me a shovel, man!”
“I found the mother-load!”
Leaving just me and one firefighter spraying water, the others took shovels and started trying to smother the ashes. One young guy bent down and started going through stuff with his thick gloves.
“What’d you find?” Papa asked, coming over. “Ammunition?”
“Naw,” he said. “Money.”
Smoking, melted coins were buried under the ashes. Despite warning that they were really hot, Papa and the young guy started picking them up and putting them in a can for the police. The money was mostly melted beyond recognition, but still they fished them out. I kept spraying the camper trailer.
At long last the smoke had died down enough for us to take a break. We didn’t know why the thing had caught on fire, but it was out now, that’s all that mattered.
“Well, I guess we can shove off,” some guys said. Papa asked if we were still necessary and they told us no, they were just going to shove the remains off the side of the road and we were free to go.
In the truck heading home, Papa grinned at me. “Your first fire! Good job!”
“Oh, thanks,” I said, a bit embarrassed. It had actually been kind of fun, being as nobody was hurt.
“The BLM guy wanted to hire you out for the summer team.”
“Yeah. I told him you weren’t eighteen yet, and he was a little disappointed, but he was impressed with you. He told me to tell you to keep your eyes open, because they recruit at school. High school, that is. In a few years.”
“Yeah. Just keep on coming with me and we’ll have fun.”
I was sure we would, but that still didn’t get around the fact that we had to do the dishes when we got home.
“Forget the dishes. We’ll worry about them later. Let’s go home and have a root beer float to celebrate.”
So we did.