Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Burning baobob

It’s just as well that Basile is on leave. Basile lost his hearing as a young boy to a fever. He provides the occasional camp amusement by starting a weed-wacker next to a poolside lounger, oblivious to the racket. But he always gets angry at situations like the one we face now. He has to stay in camp while the other men go out to fight because last time, they couldn’t find him for hours and they thought he’d been burned.

Botswana law requires men to fight fires. Law or no law, this one needs fighting. The only thing between the fire and the camp is the hangar, which has a helicopter and 80,000 liters of Jet-A.

We spotted the fire early in the day. I met a group out on their morning activity and picked up passengers at Baobob Island, named for the iconic tree at its center. By noon, the tree had been engulfed in flames.

We’ve had fires near the camp in recent weeks. When the fire burned at Kiri, we felt safe behind our moat. But that moat dried up days ago and Kiri is 8 km away. The burnt baobob tree is 1.4 km south of camp.

Senior staff and I made small talk at the Fish Eagle Bar with guests as we watched the smoke roll over the trees. Jacques sent a crew out to access the situation with the benefit of daylight.

I scheduled all my flights for the next day and went to change into my best fire-fighting flowered shirt because the crew came back and said they would need more help to turn the fire.

Jacques and I had driven to the end of the airstrip to have a look at the Kiri fire weeks ago. It was a dull glow off to the southwest. While a threat, it felt more like something that deserved monitoring, especially with an easterly wind.

We loaded up two land cruisers with men, Chantelle and a bunch of beaters. Chantelle is the other half of the camp manager team and beaters are flaps of rubber mounted on the end of poles about the length of a broom handle made from mopane saplings.

My stomach clenched when we turned the corner from the maintenance shed to the airstrip. The fire brightened the sky, smoke roiled, and it roared like a microphone held to a bowl of Rice Krispies with the speaker turned up to eleven.

The glow of the Kiri fire had earned an indifferent shrug. This fire made the fear flow. Evacuating camp looked like a real possibility in the very near future.

We needed to get to the north end of the fire to get between it and the camp but had to drive around and up from the south in a frustrating, “You uh can’t get ther’ from here,” moment.

The flames raced through the grass and spouted embers whenever they hit a bush or thicket. The sound changed in intensity each time it greedily encountered fuel more substantial than grass. We bounced along in the lead Land Cruiser watching it consume everything in its path.

Finally we were as near to the front as we dared park the vehicle and everyone hopped out, grabbing a beater on the way.

In the beginning, there was no direction, no management, just primal fear. We quickly learned that we needed to attack short grass in small groups. The tall grass threw embers over the top of the crew and the thickets burned too hot for us to get close enough.

We charged at the fire en masse, a group of fifteen men and one woman, smacking at a line of fire three km long with rubber mats screwed to not even broom handles. The group split, making a break in the fire, one group wacking its way east, the other west.

Sometimes the flames were too hot and you could only get a swing or two in before you had to run away. Other times you stood in the black soot, killing the fire from behind.

Whenever the flames reached a thicket, the temp soared and all one could do was let it burn past and attack it again once it hit the grass. We came to appreciate those little thicket flare-ups. While we hated them, they forced us to rest.

Soon our energy output turned from manic to calculated to what my friend Brad used to refer to at the end of a ski day as ‘short bursts.’

We made headway, sometimes beating flames in grass higher than our heads, grass none of us would feel comfortable walking through on a sunny day. But this wasn’t a sunny day, this was a night brightened by the destructive force of a fire headed toward our home. No need to fear snakes, they lay in burrows hiding. And any leopards or lions would’ve had the good sense to run away. Only man protecting his possessions that have no place in the natural order of things would stand to fight fire.

Fight we did. Cheering when we put out a section, laughing at a ember smoldering on a mate’s shirt as we beat it out while he howled, wondering at the audacity of the reed frogs to keep on singing hoping for one more chance to get laid before they sizzled, appreciating the beauty of a fire raging across the Delta under a nearly full moon.

When we had stopped the progress of the fire, people began hooting to each other, two Land Cruisers and a tractor full of people, gathering on the edge of a hippo trail that served as a natural fire break to make sure everyone was accounted for before we went home, closer friends than we’d been five hours before.

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