My hometown is kind of a mess. Over the weekend, our grain elevator, by far the biggest structure in town, suffered a major fire.
The part that burned was constructed of wood - wood that had been drying in the prairie sun for about a century. It held a few thousand bushels of dry wheat, along with all the associated dust and debris. As you can imagine, it made for quite a fire.
It was a frightening experience, because a building full of grain dust is a bomb waiting to go off, and a fire like that can’t be put out unless those fighting it are much closer to it than any rational human would want to be. Late in the evening, after the real work of firefighting was calming down and I felt like I wouldn’t be in the way, I went to town to take a look. The sight made me weak in the knees with gratitude. No one had been killed, no homes destroyed, and the damage to the elevator, while stunning and expensive, seemed fixable.
A little luck was involved. After weeks of extreme hot, dry weather, we had a good rain a couple of days before the fire, which made the surrounding area less explosively combustible. Plus, in a place where the wind blows all the time, Sunday there was just a gentle breeze. Dry weather with a thirty mile per hour wind could have burned half the town. So – a bit lucky.
That said, it wasn’t all luck. Not by a long shot.
Start with the people who fought the fire. No one was badly hurt, partly because most of the guys have jobs that can hurt them. Of the ten most dangerous jobs in America, six of them are common in the area where I live. Wanting to come home from work alive and well every day requires habits of care and caution, so they already had a leg up when their jobs as volunteer firefighters kicked in.
Next is the training. People aren’t just handed a firefighter uniform. Small-town volunteer firemen complete their training out of the same book that the big city professional fire fighters use. The only difference is that our people do their training in their spare time AND they don’t get paid. They fight the fires for free, too. How crazy is that?
Plus, they raise money for their own equipment. Those snappy yellow outfits – each one costs a couple thousand dollars and every time it’s washed, it loses a little of its fire-retardant properties. A big city fire department might replace their gear every five years. Small town…twenty or thirty years.
That’s just the uniforms. A fire truck can cost between $500,000.00 and a million dollars - way more money than even a dedicated small town can raise. That’s why there’s a whole network of grants and funding sources which help in the process. They might be clumsy and inefficient, but they’re in place.
It was a big fire. Around 12 fire departments showed up to help and none came by accident. Smart people worked for years setting up mutual aid agreements, training, and preparing, so when seconds mattered, none were wasted.
It’s easy to forget that so much of what makes this country work happens behind the scenes, done by people who don’t care who got your vote, but do care a lot about whether you stay safe.
I don’t pretend to live in a perfect place. But on Sunday a group of people who’d looked forward to a pleasant day off gathered from every direction of the compass to help my neighbors fight a fire that threatened my hometown. People they’d never met brought them food and cold water, and at the end of the day a small miracle had occurred. Yes, we still have a problem, but it’s not a calamity. Days like this are the best of who we are, and every day I worry that as a country we might be losing it.
But not this day.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson
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