Bales of Fire: a true story

Fiction By LoriAnn // 3/13/2010


“See ya, Mom,” I call, as my mother backs down the gravel driveway. Turning to my sister, I motion toward the house. “Ms. Dineen should either be in the house or the barn. I’ll knock.”
Walking up to the log-sided, ranch style house, I step over the menagerie of cats and dogs that try to trip me up. “Stupid dogs…” I mutter.
Katrina laughs, bending down to pet a kitten.
“Ms. Dineen?” My knuckles rap gently on the front door. I’m a bit hesitant, because when we had been out the day before, we had woken her from a much needed nap.
But no answer comes, and I rap again, a bit harder this time. “I don’t think she’s in there,” I say, cupping my hand about my eyes and peering through the window. “She must be up in the barn.”
Katrina nods in agreement and turns toward the path leading up to the barn, but I stop. “Wait—maybe she’s not here. Is there a truck missing?”
She looks at the two trucks sitting in the driveway. “I don’t think so—wait, maybe…yeah.”
“She’s not here,” I say, just as a red pickup barrels into the driveway and screeches to a halt in front of us. “Oh. Now she is.”
Ms. Dineen throws open the door of the truck and leaps out. “You girls know where any rakes are?” she demands, not even stopping to say hello.
A bit befuddled, I glance helplessly around the porch. “Uh…”
“My dad’s got a field afire,” Ms. Dineen says hurriedly. “I need rakes.”
“We’ll run up to the barn and find some,” I offer, infected by the urgency of her tone.
Katrina and I rush up to the barn—well, actually, two barns: the little barn, an older wooden building; and the big barn, a large sheet-metal structure—and searched frantically for rakes.
No rakes.
Armed with two shovels and a broken plastic muck-rake, we ran back to the house.
“This is all we could find,” Katrina pants, as we throw the tools into the back of the pickup.
Ms. Dineen nods. “That’ll have to do,” she said, jumping back into the truck. Katrina and I run to the other side and cram into the passenger seat. I don’t even have the door closed before Ms. Dineen stomps on the gas, and we’re off.
Ms. Dineen lives on a dirt road, but the lack of pavement is no barrier as we fly along the gravel, dust billowing in our wake.
“Sorry, girls,” Ms. Dineen says distractedly, sliding around a hairpin turn with practiced ease. “My dad was out baling hay and one of the bales caught fire.”
Smoke appears on the horizon, and she groans. “It’s getting bigger—and this is the second time today too.”
“The second time?”
“He had one catch earlier this afternoon too. I left work when Mom called me, and got out there. We called in the fire department and got it pretty much out, but then he went out again and caught another afire.” She sounds irritated and worried at the same time. “I just hope we don’t have to call the fire department again—that would be embarrassing.”
Katrina and I look at each other apprehensively—but a bit excitedly too.
Ms. Dineen turns down another dirt road, and soon we see a large field with trucks parked along the edges. About an acre is already blackened, and the remains of the original hay bale—the one that started it all—sits smoldering against the blue fall sky.
Bumping violently through the roadside ditch and into the field, Ms. Dineen drives right up to the edge of the blackened area as the wind picks up, blowing the fire away from us. It’s burning eastward—directly toward a patch of woods and a neighborhood of houses.
And it’s out of control.
We fairly throw ourselves from the truck, grabbing the tools from the back and hurrying toward the small crew already working at beating out the blaze. I take the heavy garden shovel, leaving the other, lighter one to Katrina. Running toward the edge of the fire, I survey the scene, quickly understanding that we’re in a race against a force of nature. The hay is raked into long rows in preparation for baling, and the fire seems to slurp along the lines like a little kid with a milkshake and a thick straw.
We go to work right away, beating at the blackened edge of the already-burned grass and trying to keep the blaze from spreading any further. It’s nearly an impossible task. No sooner have we finished beating one section into smoking ash than the one behind us breaks into flame again. I find myself muttering threats against the fire.
“Oh, no you don’t,” I hiss at a flaming patch about to ignite yet another row. Beating it heartily with my shovel, I grit my teeth in satisfaction as the heavy, iron shovel-head snuffs the life from the flames. “Not on my watch.”
For a good half hour, our enthusiasm attacks the fire with unflagging vigor. “We’ve called the fire department again,” Ms. Dineen’s sister says with resignation, trudging toward us from her truck and tucking a cell phone into her jeans’ pocket. “They’re on their way, but…” she shrugs. “It could be a while.”
I glance up long enough to brush my hair out of my face, and catch my sister’s eye. “Katrina…” I say, feeling silly but also realizing that I’m more or less responsible for her safety. “Do me a favor and watch the stuff behind us. I know you can take care of yourself, but—“ I pause to cough. The smoke is starting to bother me. “But I don’t want to feel like I have to watch out for you.”
She nods and continues stamping out flare-ups with her boots. I’m not sure, but I think I see a flash of relief cross her face.
Feeling better, I return to my work, wishing vehemently that I had remembered to wear my own boots today. But no—like a dummy, I’ve only worn a pair of sneakers. I can feel the heat from the burned ground welling up through the rubber soles as I continue banging my shovel down again and again. My back is aching now, and my arms feel as if the fire has managed to catch inside the muscles.
The wind shifts, blowing a huge plume of smoke into my face. Eyes watering, I stumble back, unable to see more than five feet in any direction. My throat burns as if I’d swallowed acid, and I gag on the acrid taste that clogs my airways. I pull the neck of my shirt over the lower half of my face, attempting to filter out some of the smoke.
“Get back, girls!” I hear Ms. Dineen shout through the gloom. “This row’s gone.”
Trudging back toward her voice, I finally break through the smoke and take a grateful gasp of clean air. My chest feels tight and hard, unwilling to move and let the clear oxygen into my lungs. Sinking down into the grass, I take deliberately large breaths. My asthma hasn’t acted up in years—I don’t want it to start now. I have a fire to put out!
“You OK, LoriAnn?” Ms. Dineen asks me, her eyes leaving the burning field for a moment.
I nod and get back up, determined to work as hard as anyone else. “Where’s the fire department?”
“They’re almost here,” she assures me, starting back toward the smoldering area. The wind has switched again, and it’s blowing back toward the east. “But they’ve got a two-hundred-gallon tank—it’s not allowed off-road.”
I look out in despair at the road, a good five-hundred feet from us. “How are they going to—“
“Get the water out here?” she interrupts. “They’ve got a smaller truck too. They’ll use the big one to refill the smaller tanks.”
Wearily, I begin beating at another row, scooping the still-safe hay back to keep it from the hungry fingers of the fire. A sharp pain suddenly erupts in my hand, and I hiss. A blister has formed on my left thumb—and been rubbed raw by the rough handle of the shovel.
But I can’t stop now—the fire is reaching for yet another row. Ignoring the pain in my hand, I rush to beat out the never-ending flames, feeling as if I’m stuck inside of a nightmare. The entire world is smoking—the earth, the sky…There’s no escape.
My face gets too close to the flames, and I jerk back with a grunt of surprise at the roasting sensation. My eyes sting as particles of hot ash float through the air on a spiteful breeze, and I swipe at them with one hand.
“They’re here!” a cry goes up from somewhere nearby—impossible to tell who it was through the grayness. I find the road above a pile of blazing hay and nearly cheer, but a new pile bursts into flame beside me and I realize that—even now, even though the real firefighters have arrived—I can’t stop.
The conflagration is like a wild creature: clever, malicious and deadly. It realized that we’re not going to let it any further into the field, and turns its attention to the nearby woods.
“Aren’t there houses back there?” I call above the sound of crackling flames, grunting people and thumping shovels.
A wordless nod is my only answer. These woods are wet underneath from the rain we had last week—but the last few days of sunshine have left the top layers of fallen leaves as dry as tinder. If the fire reaches the underbrush…I stop my thoughts with a well-placed blow to a glowing pile of straw. It won’t get that far, I assure myself, with a hopeful look at the volunteer firemen who pile out of their truck and begin to spray water all over the edges of the inferno.
But there is no stopping this fire—not yet. With a determined surge, the flames reach the boundaries of the wood, greedily biting into the doomed leaf litter. It begins to blaze instantly, almost eagerly. The fire laughs in a cruel, crackling way, and bulldozes its way deeper into the brush.
I venture into the thickest smoke, beating at thick piles of embers, sending the sparks flying into my face. Scattering the leftover ash, I move on to the next stack, keeping a wary eye on the leaping flames nearby. If the wind should suddenly shift again, I’d be right in the fire’s path; and I’m too tired to run.
My arms lift and drop the shovel mechanically, the tendons straining against the heavy weight. I grunt with every blow, my shirt again pulled over my face in a vain attempt at filtering the air. My lungs are dry, and my ears are filled with the hot sounds of fire and the shouts of the fighters.
Suddenly, there is a man beside me, wearing a strange backpack-like contraption made of yellow rubber.
“Get back,” he tells me with a nod toward the edge of the burning ground. “I’ll get this.”
Gratefully, I lurch out of the smoke and into free air, coughing dryly. Katrina joins me, and we watch as the volunteer firemen spray down the flames. The fire struggles ineffectively against the superior power—this time—of water; until with a final steaming growl, it falters and dies.
I look around me. We have moved so far down the field that I can’t even see Ms. Dineen’s truck anymore. As far as I can see to my left and right, ash coats the field, smoke rising in surrendering spirals into the sky.
“Well.” I mutter. And there doesn’t seem to be anything else to say.
We walk back toward the trucks, my legs trembling tiredly under me and my hand loosely grasping my shovel. A sharp sting reminds me of the blister on my hand. Sure enough, it’s bleeding. I wince and try to ignore it—or touch it.
“Oh no…” Ms. Dineen’s voice comes from in front of us. Katrina and I hurry forward as she says. “Now we get to save the baby mice.”
There, in the dead center of nearly three acres of blackened ground, a softball-sized nest of fur and woven grass sits completely unscathed. As I gape at the incongruity of the thing, Ms. Dineen points to the ground beside it, where five baby mice, barely larger than the first joint of my pinky finger, lie gasping for breath.
They’re beautiful, perfectly formed. Their backs are covered in soft golden fur, while their bellies are whiter than freshly-milled flour. Five pairs of little ears, thinner than a slip of paper, shiver pinkly in the chilly wind. Five little tails curl about tiny paws tipped with delicate claws.
“Their mother must have run when she saw the fire,” Ms. Dineen says, standing up from where she’s knelt beside the nest. “Maybe she tried to get them out, but…” and she shrugs.
Her dad comes up alongside us. “What is it?”
“Baby mice,” I answer, unable to tear my eyes away from the helpless things.
He grunts in disgust. “Step on ‘em,” he advises.
Ms. Dineen shakes her head. “I’m not gonna step on them,” she says with a tone of aversion. Then she sighs. “But I’m not just gonna leave them here to freeze to death either.”
I try to look away, but too late. I see the shovel come crashing down on the tiny bodies, crushing the life from them.
“Sorry…sorry,” Ms. Dineen mutters as she checks to make sure she got every one.
I feel sick—they’re only mice, I tell myself. But they were so…perfect.
“It was a mercy killing,” Ms. Dineen says as we turn to go away. I’m surprised to hear her sniff and speak as though she’s trying to persuade herself. This is a side of the tough farm woman that I haven’t seen before. “They wouldn’t have lived anyway.”
I nod, but something in me still rebels. The fire missed them, the something wails. Not even a wildfire could kill them, but we had to crush them because they would have only starved or frozen otherwise.
“Can you drive my truck back to the house?” Ms. Dineen asks, changing the subject as we near the vehicles.
“Um…I can,” I say honestly. “But I left my purse up at the barn. I don’t have my wallet with me.” Not to mention the fact that I’m eighteen and still only have a driver’s permit.
She looks undecided for a moment; then shrugs. “If we get stopped, I’ll explain,” she assures me. With trepidation, I climb into her enormous red farm truck.
We pull out of the field much more slowly than we entered it, now that the urgency is gone. As I carefully drive around a fire truck, one of the firemen meets my gaze. I can’t help but feel a tingle of pride as he offers a small salute. I’m afraid to let go of the steering wheel, but I nod back at him, acknowledging the gesture.
Catching a glimpse of my face in the rearview mirror, I’m taken aback by the girl who looks back at me. Her face is red and streaked with ash, her hair is frazzled and mussed, and there are dark smudges under her eyes. But there is a triumphal glint in her gaze and a cocky smile playing about the corners of her mouth.
I could like that girl, I think in surprise. I could enjoy having her around.
As I pull the truck into the driveway of Ms. Dineen’s sister’s house, I gladly relinquish the driver’s seat to its rightful owner.
“Well, girls,” Ms. Dineen says, half jokingly. “Have fun today?”
And you know what?
I almost think I did. 


Wow, that must have been

Wow, that must have been quite the day! A fantastically written story, LoriAnn :-D

Erin | Sat, 03/13/2010

"You were not meant to fit into a shallow box built by someone else." -J. Raymond


You mentioned this earlier in an e-mail...glad it was you and not me. To be honest though, mice creep me out. Unless the mouse is Reepicheep. You should use this in a story sometime...very good description.

Julie | Sat, 03/13/2010

Formerly Kestrel

Wow! That was pretty intense.

Wow! That was pretty intense. If it had happened to me, I bet I wouldn't have been able to remember it like you did. You wrote it very well. I bet that was pretty exciting :)

Laura Elizabeth | Sun, 03/14/2010

The best stories are those that are focused, unassuming, and self-confident enough to trust the reader to figure things out. --

Not exactly the way I

Not exactly the way I remember it... but it makes a good story anyway and its all true. That was one busy day. I didnt get any battle wounds, not even blisters but I think that both of our throats were a little sore over the next few days. Oh yes, and one of my boots was pretty melted. :) Like it LoriAnn.

Kay J Fields | Mon, 03/15/2010

Visit my writing/book review blog at


Hey, hush, sis! LOL--so I took a tiny bit of poetic license, but honestly not much. Mostly with the last few minutes--I didn't actually look in the mirror until we got back to the house, and stuff like that. Other than that, it's a true story. :P

LoriAnn | Mon, 03/15/2010

I just now got around to

I just now got around to reading this,LoriAnn.  Loved it!  Your description was great, and the way you wrapped it up at the end was fabulous all around! Well done!

Mary | Fri, 04/16/2010

Brother: Your character should drive a motorcycle.
Me: He can't. He's in the wilderness.
Brother: Then make it a four-wheel-drive motorcycle!