Gunpowder fills the air with its acrid, thick odour. Somehow the smell makes it less dangerous to me – makes it a lot safer, in fact – which is something of a paradox if you think about it, but when you’ve grown up around weapons all your life it makes sense. Black smoke pours from the house as Ken and I crouch behind the engine block of the fire truck listening to the pop and zing of bullets exploding in the air. The heat of the fire drives the billowing smoke skyward, but in the cold air it quickly drops onto the ground where it crouches ominously as if waiting to seek out the puny humans hiding from the beast.
People always have this false sense of what being in a fire is all about. Rarely is it bright with licking flames lighting up the sky. That is all Hollywood and movies. Usually it’s dark and suffocating. There is no air. The atmosphere is poisonous. Hot and lurking, it silently waits to kill anyone unfortunate enough to have been caught in it.
The sirens are quiet now, the hoses hissing and aimed, but unmanned, showering water and foam into blackened windows. Ken and I are laughing, giggling actually, as Hades smolders behind us. Bullets continue to pop and burst from their casings as the heat and fire find each new cache. I hear small thuds away to my right which inexplicably sends us into another fit of laughter. We are playing a waiting game and the adrenaline pumping through our bodies has no place else to go.
Down the road I can see the homeowner standing by the Unit Chief’s truck; with wide shocky eyes he watches his home burn slowly to the ground. He shakes his head morosely a few times as he listens to Don speaking to him. He never takes his eyes from his yard. He is a hunter, and he shoots in competitions, he explains proudly. He has probably loaded over two thousand bullets this month alone. He stops talking when he hears the thump of a detonating powder keg exploding behind us. Suddenly ping, ping, ping, countless bullets are popping and going off as the flames find another shelf.
The ground beneath my hands is damp and cold. I’m sitting on it now but do not feel it through the thick, protective padding of the firefighter’s suit I wear. I tilt my head back and watch the crisp pinpoints of light from the stars overhead. Ken tells me something funny that happened at work today and we laugh again. I don’t know his last name. I think it may be Cook, or Smith. I’m about to ask when my gaze returns to the eyes of the homeowner; they are blank, unseeing. He only seems alive and animated while talking; otherwise he is an automaton as he stands watching his house burn to the ground.
Squeezed in between two smelly guys I sit quietly in the front seat as we head back to the station. Everyone is silent and subdued, a far cry from the normal aftermath of a call-out. No one is regaling the crew with tales from the derring-do of the evening. Along with the ever-present smell of mold and body odour, the air is thick with despondency. Watching a house burn to the ground without lifting a finger doesn’t sit well with anyone. Even at the end as the water sizzled in puddles here and there I still heard the occasional popping as the final deposits of ammunition went off. Ken and three others have stayed to keep the premises secure from the lookie-loos while the rest of us head back to the station to clean up and prepare the equipment for the next emergency.
Even though no one ever entered the building we all smell of gunpowder, burning plastics, tar, and fire retardant. Water lines and hoses need to be flushed, cleaned, and hung to dry. The vehicles have to be stripped and scoured. Inventories need to be checked and replenished, my job. It is going to be a long process without the usual bantering that goes on after the excitement of a fire.
“I heard Mike Parsen’s place burned down last night. Were you on call?” Linda asks me when I walk into the office the next morning.
“Yup,” I say. “Is the grade eight class coming in this morning?” I ask.
Linda looks at me and tilts her head to the side. “Soooooo?” She lets the word hang in the air.
“So nothing,” I say.
I’m tired, I have a headache, and I’m not up to the interrogation. It was difficult to get back to sleep last night; all I kept seeing was the look on Mike’s face: stunned, disbelieving, as his whole world was going up in smoke while the entire fire department stood around watching from a safe distance. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I say before I realize what a mistake that was. Nothing makes Linda more curious than an untold story. Nothing was more dangerous than that.
Photo #1: “House on Fire” by Kiwi NZ. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Photo #2: “House in Flames” by Kiwi NZ. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.