I was on the way to the gas station driving down our hill when I saw the smoke rising over the trees. There was too much smoke to be coming from a barbecue, and I felt my stomach sink. We’d just been talking about this subject at Saturday morning T-ball practice. There was too little snow over the winter, even less rain this spring, and the trees were still mostly naked. It’s the perfect recipe for wild fires.
As I drove along the Battenkill River toward the gas station in the center of Arlington, I discovered the source of the smoke, and my fear was confirmed. Across the road from the river and up a very dry hill a brush fire had already consumed over an acre of fuel. A makeshift fire crew composed of the family and employees of a nearby farm stand owner was trying to control the blaze while waiting for the bulk of the town’s fire department to arrive. A members of the department were already scaling the rocky hill and establishing traffic control.
I waited for the person controlling traffic to waive me through, trying not to dwell on my worst fears or on any anger with the faceless firestarter. I was anxious, but it was not from impatience. It was worry for the people living near by the fire, but it was also concern for the people – all acquaintances and some friends – who were now arriving en masse to put out the fire that was still growing.
Our local fire department, like many in rural areas, is made up entirely of volunteers who execute their responsibilities with as much gravity and professionalism as any paid firefighters. As I inched along the two-lane road, using as much caution as I could, the bottom of the hill next to the road was smoldering, and larger flames could be seen higher up. Firefighters had already reached the worst of the blaze, dragging fire hoses and shovels with them and working with rapid calm to contain it. They were still there working when I returned home later using the road on the other side of the river. Long after the flames appeared to be extinguished, members of the crew remained, keeping vigil for any sparks that might have escaped their notice in the camouflaging day light.
Later in the day I had learned that some careless individuals had caused the fire while setting off fireworks from a boat on the river. That kind of selfishness always annoys me, but lately, when confronted with news of disasters or near-disasters in our own neighborhood, I’ve been following the advice of the late Fred Rogers. I’ve been looking for the helpers, and it’s helped me see yet another layer of our town.
Neighbors and friends from every walk of life had flocked to the fire this afternoon, and because of their love for their community, I went to bed that night, I secure in the knowledge that if an errant spark rekindled that fire, those same people would be there again. It’s not the first time I’ve felt lucky to live where we do, and it won’t be the last. But Saturday night was a solid reminder that something bigger than a few spectacular mountain vistas inspires that feeling.