Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wildfire Summer

The fires in Texas have been taking hold of my Twitter feed over the past few days - farm owners seeking help to evacuate their horses. After growing up in Florida, I can sympathize. Wildfires are terrifying, worse when you have horses to worry about.

Florida is famous for hurricanes, but actually wildfires are more common. The cycle of the Florida wetlands is fire and flood, and all the subdivisions and interstates in the world haven’t been able to change that. Springtime in Florida smells of smoke.

The year 1998, in particular, was a terrible fire season. Florida’s dry season lasts from November to June; the summertime is humid and loud with thunder, a delightful climate for frogs and alligators. In 1998, though, the seasons seemed to switch. It was unnaturally wet over the winter, and the controlled burns and wildfires that should have thinned the underbrush were doused by rains. In the spring, as the heat returned and the fire season began, everything seemed to go up.

We waited for June’s rains with red-rimmed eyes, brushing the ash from our cars each morning. We listened to our horses’ breathing and fretted over the damage being done to their lungs, we lost sight of the sun in the yellow-tinged skies. We stopped conditioning work and jumping because of the smoke-choked air.

June came, and then July. The rain did not. One by one, the cities cancelled their Fourth of July fireworks. In Daytona Beach, the speedway postponed the Pepsi 400. For the first time ever, the theme parks in Orlando silenced their nightly fireworks shows. It was quiet, and hot, and hard to breathe.

I worked at an orange grove stand in the evenings, listening to the radio and writing stories and eating grapefruit slices. (Evenings are not busy times for beachside orange grove stands.) It was nearly time for me to leave when news came over the radio that a fire was burning out of control on the south side of the Kennedy Space Center. My horse lived within sight of that southern fenceline. I closed the shop early and flung myself into my car.

When I drove across the causeway, I looked north, towards the space center. I could see the flames leaping into the air, ten miles away. The entire shoreline looked apocalyptic.

Night fell as I drove into the smoke, two hours before sunset. It was pitch black on the farm road; I barely saw the fireman in my path as I crept along, nose to the steering wheel.

He leaned into the car. “You can’t go any further,” he said. 

“I have to get my horse out,” I told him. “He’s down the next driveway. We have a back way out, onto Tropical Trail.” Tropical Trail was a road to the south, leading away from the flames. I didn’t exactly have a road to get to it, but I knew the way.

He stepped back. “We’ll be up that driveway in half an hour. Don’t be there.”

My riding buddy was already there when I leapt out my car; both our horses were tacked up. “Do we go now, or wait?” she asked. 

But I was distracted. There were six other boarders, and no sign of any of them. The horses were in the pastures. “Is no one else here?” 

“Nope,” she said. “It’s just us.”

“What do we do with their horses?” There were no trailers. There were no trucks. We were two high school girls, about to ride our horses through wood trails and orange groves to get them to open space. 
We couldn’t get out the other horses. This wasn’t an adventure novel, this wasn’t The Saddle Club - this was real life.

“The fireman down there said he’d open the gate,” she said. “If they end up coming down here.”

“Well.” I didn’t know what to say that. I did the only thing I knew to do in times of crisis: took my horse’s reins and swung into the saddle. We sat, mounted, as the smoke swirled and the sirens wailed, waiting. 

Finally, a fire truck appeared in the barn driveway.

“This is it,” I said. I looked at my car. “Sorry, car.”

But we got a reprieve. A fireman came out of the truck and walked up to us. “We’re calling off the evacuation,” he said. “Wind’s changing and it’s contained to the space center.” He looked us over, teenagers on horseback, and shook his head. “You girls and your horses.”

It rained a week later.
Amarillo, the horse I nearly rode out of a wildfire. Girls and their horses, indeed.


jenj said...

Wow, what a story! You and the horses are so very lucky to have escaped that.

Please continue to send good thoughts to all those folks who are affected by the fires.

Francesca Prescott said...

Goodness me, what a scary experience, and you were so brave. Amazing story, very well told.

I heard today on the Swiss radio that there are really bad fires in Texas. Is it because of the insanely hot summer, or is it criminal?

Linda Benson said...

Great post, Natalie. How scary, especially to experience that as a teenager. I felt your adrenaline rush! We have lots of fires out west, too, and moving horses is a daunting proposition.

Sending good thoughts to those in Texas right now that are still in harm's way.

Alison said...

I totally enjoyed this, Natalie, and it sure relates to my Villain blog which is all about the natural disaster and how it affects our animals and us.

Loved it!

Laura Crum said...

I had a similar experience a few years ago. The wildfire was in sight--we were told the road might close. We held off on evacuating--we had five horses and a three horse trailer and were afraid that if we left they would not let us back in to get the last two horses. I had a plan--if we needed to go, my husband would haul three horses--I would ride one and lead one (the steadiest ones) down our local trails to the spot which had already been designated as a shelter for people and animals--about a mile away. As in your case, the wind changed and the fire turned and did not approach us, but I remember those emotions. Your story brought it all back. I feel for those facing this.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

@Francesca... the situation in Texas is so dry and desperate that while some may be arson, some fires can be started by perfectly innocent things.

During the 98 fires in FL, one devastating fire was caused by a riding lawn mower left idling for a few moments. The dry dead grass clippings ignited and the resulting fire would eventually burn hundreds of acres and a home.

Thanks Jen, Linda, and Alison!

Anonymous said...

Suddenly I don't feel so irritated about all the rain we have had this year.

But there are other things that concern me after reading your scary story...

What do you do if a tornado comes near? Do you let your horses out to run or do you leave them in their paddocks? Or do you load up and hope that you drive in the right direction?

Also what do those do that live where all these hurricanes are coming through? Should we all own a trailer that will take all the horses at one time??

Ug, questions I never thought of until I brought my horses home.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

Mommyrides.... I'm of the opinion that horses should be out in bad weather, with the exception of lightning.

Horses are usually killed by wind events (tornadoes and hurricanes) when they are left inside, because the barns collapse. Horses CAN be killed by debris out in the fields, but it's less likely. You give them more of a chance when they can run away.

I have a hurricane post here (not exactly educational, but more my thoughts on it) at Retired Racehorse:

Tails to the Wind

I'm writing a hurricane section into my new novel which I think will make people move away from the Southeast altogether ;)