We have some friends who live out west of Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Nearly eighty miles west. They live on a ranch measured in sections, not acres. I grew up on a two-hundred-and-fifty acre dairy and row-crop farm in western Kentucky. A section being six-hundred-and-forty acres means the ranch our friends live on is a least fifty times larger than our home place. Maybe a hundred times larger, I don’t really know.
What I do know is that they live on the prairie, oceans of grass with dashes of trees and brush. An area naturally formed to the raising of livestock. Those miles of pasture provide grazing for hundreds of thousands of cattle in Kansas and Oklahoma. When it rains.
In the dry seasons and in the times of extended drought, such as now, those miles of dry stems and raspy blades are custom made fire fodder. Fires there, fueled by all that grass and pushed by winds that sometimes topple semis on the freeway, can turn into monstrous force. Something along the order of self-propelled blast furnaces, moving at the speed of wind and generating a killing heat that can top a thousand degrees. The timber frames inside metal-skinned buildings can burst into flames even though the fire itself may have not come within a hundred feet. That sort of power and force can turn a breezy afternoon into Armageddon.
It can start with the spark of an engine, the whipping of power lines rubbing against each other or being torn from a transformer, a cigarette butt tossed out a window, or something similar but more sinister. Dried grass can actually ignite more easily than diesel fuel. And spread like gossip in a small town with a similar capacity for destruction.
And so our friends keep a packet of important papers near the door, the horse trailers hooked to the trucks so horses can be loaded quickly and extra clothes are kept stored in the truck. They know that in spite of all prayers and the heroism of other firefighters, it could come to one trip out and everything left behind turned to ashes before they can return.
It’s a whole different mentality from anything I’ve ever known, having grown up in the green rolling lands of the Bluegrass State. Different than northeastern Kansas, too, which is more similar to western Kentucky than to western Kansas. It is a mindset of pragmatism pushed to harsh reality, of settled priorities and un-negotiated acceptances. A conflicting awareness of vulnerability and of hope that you will have enough notice to do the little that you can.
A recognition that while we make what preparations we may, forces greater than ourselves are at work in our world. We hope that we do not wake to the sound of flames and find that it is our life that is on fire.