About an hour into the fire, a sizable congregation of pickup trucks lined the dirt road in southeast Harvey County.
Some of the drivers made it onto the farm; others stood by their trucks, talking and watching.
Further up, the smoke blocked the road.
Fires burned in the farm’s tree rows. It claimed a barn already. The wind stoked the flames with 25-mile-per-hour gusts. North of the fire was a house.
The world darkened as the blaze hit what was either a pile of tires or some kind of oil. The thick black smoke shaded the fire and brush trucks from Newton and Potwin down below.
Fire-fighters from the surrounding areas all worked to combat the flames, which jumped the road from the farm and threatened to push north.
One-hundred yards down, a sheriff’s deputy and two young men kicked and stomped out the flames that licked up the grass ditch. One man used his canvas coat, stirring up a cloud of smoke with each “womp” “womp” “womp.”
There are never strangers at a fire.
I saw it at the fire Friday afternoon at 7805 SE 36th St.
I’ve seen it during the Midtown fire, the North Newton fire, and the Burrton wildfires. I’ve seen it at the dozens of structure fires I’ve covered.
Nothing melts down formalities, separations and reservations like flames.
Regular days can be spent avoiding eye contact, giving curt nods when forced to acknowledge people. We can insulate ourselves. We can be a nation of one
But if there’s a fire, everyone is on the same team.
It makes sense. Today we rarely deal with conflicts with nature.
Our conflicts are interpersonal—someone said something we didn’t like or harmed our fragile ego. That lady at the grocery store keeps crowding you when you’re trying to buy some bargain meat. We’re worried that an unknown person that we will never see or contact will somehow threaten our small crumbs from the proverbial pie.
There are no buffaloes to track and kill or wolves to fight. We go to the store to get our food. Houses keep us safe from a violent storm. Starvation, predation and exposure have become part of history for us here.
But a fire, well, a fire doesn’t discriminate. A fire can still kill. A fire can still destroy. A fire can humble us and lay bare the false securities we’ve constructed around ourselves.
And removing that sense of security removes our reservations to other people.
No, there are no strangers at a fire, only just people united by a common threat.
Those folks trying to put out the ditch fire, those neighbors standing in the farm yard, the fire-fighters, the law enforcement, everyone united.
When passersby stopped at the Midtown Apartment fire in October of 2015 to move disabled residents across the street to shelter, those people were united.
In 2016, the City of Burrton and the businesses therein opened up to the people impacted by the massive brush fire and to the first responders fighting the fire in shift after shift; all such people were united.
Such instances always give me hope for us, but such instances also fill me with a sort of sorrow.
Today, we face so many external threats that should unite us. Greed doesn’t destroy a house like a fire, but it does deprive some of homes and property. Hate doesn’t physically burn us, but the results of the emotion can destroy just as many as flames do.
Ignorance and apathy aren’t picked up and spread by the wind, but they move forward and devour with the same mindless determination as a blaze does.
These threats are carried by people, just like a lit cigarette can be carried on a hot windy day. One errant flick, and the threats spread.
In most cases, the person didn’t mean to start the fire. It’s a small facet of their behavior that causes the problem.
That’s the same with greed, hate, ignorance and apathy. They are facets of behavior to be corrected.
Together this week, firefighters and first responders defeated the fire. The fire claimed five outbuildings, but firefighters saved the house.
United, we as a people have so much potential to overcome the challenges and crises we face. But the fact that it takes such instances as the random fire or disaster to highlight our own potential shows how often we fall short.
My God, what we could do, if only we could see the flames burning around us.