Fire at the Penn Property

Forest fire

Image courtesy

Here’s an excerpt from a revised chapter 1 of Carbon Run, my novel of global warming. “Bill” is Bill Penn, who owns a ranch in the fictional Brier Valley in southern Oregon. “Anne” is Anne Penn, his 19-year-old daughter. As the excerpt opens, a fire has broken out in the ranch house. The scene includes some ideas I have about fighting wildfires in the 22nd century.

Bill managed to get the truck moving, even as paint bubbled off the hood like a volcanic mud pot. The needles on the pines around the house browned to the color of the litter on the ground. Maxie, the ranch’s old basset hound, barked as if warning off an intruder. Then a gust of wind lifted an ember and it floated like a feather in a breeze. The wind carried it to the woodland next to the ranch. As if she had second sight, Anne saw the future.

“Oh, god. The refuge.”

A wisp of fire had landed in tinder-dry brush and instantly flared. Her matted hair flying, Anne ran past the lurching truck carrying a tin bucket she found lying near a singed rose bush. She dipped it into the half-empty horse trough and splashed the water onto the blackening grass. But within seconds, the offspring of the house fire raged into the pines. The fire leapt from tree to tree like a mad demon. Anne made another frantic call to 9-1-1, begging the firefighters to hurry.

As if in answer to a prayer, a fixed-wing aircraft arrived first. Anne heard the drone before she saw it. Several of the big tankers were always somewhere overhead, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, during the dry season. Their pilots waited for orders at workstations in the western states fire suppression center. Anne had taken a tour of it for her junior year environmental defense class. The technicians were a thousand miles away from the Penn property. The tour guide said most of the pilots were veterans of the Three Degrees North War.

Anne ducked by instinct as the initial sorties dive-bombed the forest around the refuge at tree-level. She messaged her c-tribe in jubilation and the “Hurrahs!” and “Yays” came back instantly. The planes were a thrill to watch and frightening at the same time. The pilots could hit a single tree with their payloads and barely splash the tree’s neighbors. Thousands of gallons of fire retardant and water soaked the blaze, but the tongues of flame defied the aircraft like rioters.

More sorties attacked these fiery stragglers. The sun glinted off the silver wings as the planes banked to avoid the mountains. As soon as they turned, the fire flared again, marching in patches up the hill like squads of invading soldiers, heading straight for the refuge and the birds. Anne ran up to the blackened, still burning forest, when her father called her back. She hesitated, torn between the birds she had come to love like a family and her father, the only family she had. More tankers roared overhead.

Anne returned to her father’s side at a spot in the dirt driveway upwind of the house. Gray ash covered his face like a shroud, highlighting the shock in his blue-green eyes. Anne tugged her father away from the spectacle of the entire house engulfed in roaring cacophony of fire. Then Anne heard the helicopter. It slung a full water bucket below its belly. A door opened in the bucket’s bottom, and a thousand-gallon deluge dropped onto the remains of the burning house.

Nearly all the flames at the house died right there and then, leaving charred wood, twisted aluminum from the window frames, and a concrete set of steps that now led nowhere. Steam hissed from the debris. A puff of smoke escaped from the stove pipe of the wood stove in the remains of the living room. The stove was one of the few pieces of the house left over from the original building, which her father said was built a century ago, long before the development restrictions of the 2090s. He liked to think of the house and stove as historic, because it was illegal by today’s standards. The stove kept Anne and her father warm in the high-country nights.

“Oh, god. Oh, god.” Bill clasped his hands on his head, as if protecting it from the devastation. He walked into the corpse of the house, and Anne feared he would hurt himself. He reached down and lifted a metal picture frame, which still held a scorched, soaked image of Anne’s dark-haired, fair-skinned mother. The frame and photo disintegrated in her father’s hands, and he keened as if his heart had been torn out. “Everything is gone! Everything is gone!”

Anne wrapped her arms around her father, pulling him away from the carnage, ignoring the sweat and caked dust on his body, her own tears mixing with the dirt and water that saturated his shirt and jeans. Her c-tribe posted dozens of messages trying to soothe her and tell her she wasn’t alone and that the community would help. But she perceived nothing aside from her father’s grief, her own disbelief at the instant destruction of her life, and the blackened cadaver of her home. It was the end of her world.

A moment later, two fire trucks, one a red pumper from the local fire district, and a second fire suppression unit from the state department of forestry, roared up the pitted dirt road that wound through the Penn place’s forested ravine. Their sirens wailed, and they flashed their lights, though there was no traffic on the road to warn away. The pumper peeled off across a field to the front of the house. A firefighter dressed in heavy yellow jumpsuit, oxygen mask, and helmet dragged over a hose to soak the coals in the remains of the dwelling.

The suppression unit pulled up to the rear near the equipment shed, its electric motor straining as it climbed the steep driveway. It drove across a field to the blackened edge of the trees that bordered the refuge. The unit was a huge, blocky beast, with roll-up doors along the sides. Two men in fire suits jumped out out of the cab, and the doors flew open. Hydraulic levers lowered a squad of four-legged robots to the ground. Each robot had two huge tanks on its back. They looked like enormous, headless bulldogs. The firefighters ordered the robots into action, and the machines climbed straight into the trees and into the midst of the flames. Anne heard the hiss of water dousing the fire, the robots climbing the rocky hillside as if they were goats.

A few minutes later, a wailing aid unit stopped on the dry grass that was once the Penn’s yard. An EMT ran toward Anne and Bill. A McCall County sheriff’s helicopter, the size of a wren, hovered twenty feet over Anne’s head. The remotely flown copter was joined by a patrol car, lights blazing red and blue. The car’s tires kicked up dust as it parked next to the aid unit. A well-built man, wearing body armor under his shirt and a pistol, trotted up to Anne and her father.

“Are you and Anne alright, Bill?” the officer said.

“I guess so, Gary,” Anne’s father said. “I can’t say I’m glad to see you, but was I ever glad to see you?” Anne could feel her father’s shaking as adrenalin rocked his body. She was jittery herself. The EMT led them to the back of the aid unit, and he bid them to sit on the step. He draped each of them with a thermal blanket, despite the 95-degree temperatures.

“I don’t remember a single time, Bill,” said the officer. His name was Lieutenant Gary Schmidt. He was responsible for the scattered farms and homesteads in this part of the valley. Schmidt was one of the few cops Anne trusted. “But I’m not going to ticket you this time, Bill, even if you deserve it again for that wood stove.”

Bill nodded absently, lowering his head into his heads, as if hiding from the horror around him..

“Do you need anything, Bill?”

Bill shook his head.

Anne had not moved from her father’s side. She clung to him in a way she could not remember since her mother had died. Anne’s eyes—which her father said were the color of fertile loam, like her mother’s—stared toward the remnants of the house. But she wasn’t gazing at the destruction of her life. She was watching another small remote-controlled helicopter, buzzing over the smoldering wildlife refuge.

What you do think? What should happen next?

2 thoughts on “Fire at the Penn Property

  1. I want to know more about the 3 degrees war and the concept of a “c-tribe.” Maybe a flashback chapter? More about Anne’s mother. I’m wondering if she was some heroic character.


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