Friday, April 4, 2014

Even You Can Prevent Forest Fires! Or Garbage Fires!

There was a cry from across campus.

Ladies! There’s a fire, grab buckets!

We were in the middle of discussing the results of final exams and the girls were wearing their nice classroom clothes. Nevertheless, we were flying out the door and toward the billowing smoke, which we had already begun to smell but hadn’t started to think about. The smoke was coming from upriver, on our side of the road – quite obviously from the property of our nearest neighbor and campus foreman, Elias. It smelled nasty.
Almost smells like barbeque, but is it?

We trudged in non-work shoes through the scrubby brush and into a smokey, muddy scene. The water piping had been disconnected to help put out the flames but it was too bulky and inflexible to really do much good. Girls tried filling buckets and carrying it to smoldering areas but it was a lot like The Little Rascals, when all the kiddos make a line and pass the water, and by the time it reaches the fire so much has been spilt that there’s only a tiny splash left. Pish, says the water, as it barely kisses the smoke.

Luckily two of our present volunteers are some spunky, knowledgeable women with forestry and backcountry training. Michelle jumped to the helm of the extinguishing effort and calmed the beast. (Jessica has asthma and regrettably couldn’t help too much.) She later reported the source of the disgusting smoke was an intentional garbage fire, much like any garbage fire a Honduran makes any day of the week. The difference here was, it was unattended, it was over 90 degrees, and it was incredibly windy.
World-class Third-World firefighting.

The fire was finally out. Or was it?

A few hours later, I went for a hike to make a final river-log crossing before I shove off next week. Nothing like tightroping across a log on a lovely Honduran day! But as I rounded the corner past Fancho’s tomato fields, there was the smoke. It was worse than before. It was blacker, and bigger, and this time there were big visible flames on both sides of the road I needed to pass. I tiptoed from rock to rock across the river, the backroad to home. As I jogged haphazardly along the river line, knocking into spider webs like I just didn’t care (except I did, because they give me the creeps) I could see the fire blowing near our coffee-drying greenhouses.

If we have to evacuate, do I have all my stuff together? I wondered. Am I going to have to reschedule my flight home and pay United Airlines an extra $300 to do it?

When I finally made it back, puffing from the added speed, I reported the situation to Michelle, who immediately ran over. She gathered our Honduran workers and again, several hours later, had put down the fire. This time it had taken out about half a football field, mostly of dry grass, but incredibly close to Elias’ house and the coffee. And, as the smoke would remind us, it was trying to blow toward campus.

And then the fire was out. Or was it?

Wendi and I went for a walk the next morning to, of course, enjoy nature, but also to survey the damage. Much to our surprise, it was still burning, and there was Michelle, with her pesticide-spray backpack filled with water, telling the smallish flames who was boss (humans, of course, who were also the ones who started it). One of the workers fiddled with a hose behind her while smoking a cigarette. Old habits burn a long time.

And then, of course, the fire was out. It really was.
The coffee is safe! But for gosh's sake, don't burn your garbage and then walk away!

Except that last night, less than 48 hours after our neighborhood trash disaster, another fire had started across the river. I returned from teaching exercise class to hear “the mountain was up in flames” down river near the waterfall drop. I didn’t go look. It was after dark and I could hear helicopters in the distance. Rumor was the military had been called. Honestly, I’ve been a bit sickened by the prevalence of avoidable burns.

This afternoon I wandered along the main path across the river and didn’t go more than twenty minutes before I came to the blackened forest. The thick blanket of pine needles had been completely charred but the beautiful pines are nearly untouched. It’s pretty darn creepy walking into a smoky forest with the ground still hot and the air still a complete ashtray. I opted to turn around quickly for vanity’s sake: I had washed my hair this morning. I have no intention of wasting my twice-a-week wash on the smoke of yet another fire.

Will there be more? I hope not. Could there be more? Probably. Americans are used to having hot showers. Rural Hondurans are used to smokin’ a ciggie while burning their paper and plastic. Am I afraid? No. We’re educating the girls now about the dangers of burning garbage and changing our entire fire routine. It was the push we needed to motivate a culture of risky cultural practices to do something different.

So kind of like the phoenix, something better rises from the ashes. And then, we will use the ashes to turn our compost toilet waste into fertilizer.

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