Most of us were on pins and needles. We watched the clock waiting for the appointed hour. Not one person in the room was looking forward to the meeting yet the Fire Boss had made it clear we owed it to them. . . .
It wasn’t a big town but it was a town. A place thirty or so people called home. It had about ten homes, a grocery store with a gas station, a post office, and a church.
The fire was moving directly towards this small community. We knew there was a slim chance of saving the town but the decision was made - we would take that chance. The firing crew surrounded the town and most of the overhead team was nearby.
The fire crested the hill and started burning towards the town when the order went out to start the backfire. Backfiring is starting a fire with the hopes that it burns enough fuel to stop or at least slow down the main fire.
When the backfire started, I held my breath. Having done this a few times, I knew the chances of succeeding.
About twenty-five minutes into the backfire the main fire started racing down the hill. Our backfire was caught up in the main fire. There was nothing to do except pull back and watch.
From a distance, we watched as flames devoured the town. When the smoke cleared what was once a town consisted of a pile of ashes and one building, the post office, which somehow survived the inferno.
Driving back to fire camp no one said a word. We knew we had taken our best shot and lost. A town, a community, a place people called home was gone because we couldn’t save it.
The following day the sting of the defeat had not lessened. Then word came down that the Fire Boss wanted to meet at 11:00 AM. This was far outside the norm and everyone on the fire team knew what it was about.
The Fire Boss got right to the point. “Ultimately it was my responsibility to start the backfire and I will address that. But, the more immediate need is the town’s people have asked for a meeting with the overhead team at 1900 (7:00 PM). I’d like us all to be there. We owe them that much.” And with that, the meeting was over.
Throughout the afternoon, everyone tried to focus on the task at hand but in the back of your mind was the meeting. We had done the absolute best we could and failed. But, it wasn’t our homes or our businesses that lay smoldering in a heap of ashes.
At 6:55, the overhead team had assembled and waited in silence. Then twenty-nine people from the town walked in. The majority of them carried a bucket of ice cream, or paper plates, or a pie. One man at the front of the group said, “We know you did the best you could to save our town and we want to say thank you. We thought if it’s alright, we could have dessert together.” The entire overhead team stood there in silence. Finally, the Fire Boss walked forward and said we would be honored.
These people had lost most if not all their possessions. Their homes were gone. They had to have a thousand things running through their mind on what needed to be done– yet, they were taking the time to come back and thank us for trying to save their town.
I don’t remember what type of pie I had. I’ve forgotten the flavor of the ice cream. I do know that night I had seen the best side of humanity.