I arrived at the fire before any of the trucks, so I threw on my gear that was stored behind the seat of my El Camino and started to reconnoiter the area. The rental home was an old wood frame house with a small porch; it sat in the middle of an acre plot that was surrounded by a pasture on one side and cotton fields on the other and behind. There was a small Mulberry bush near the front door and a large White Oak tree just to the side of the back door, a few other trees dotted the yard and driveway. Twenty yards away, an old Ford pickup truck sat on blocks and a barbed wire fence lined the perimeter. A propane tank was situated on the side of the house. It appeared the only thing home was the renter’s Blue Healer dog. He sat trembling by the fence and growled when I tried to catch him. I did not want him running around when everyone arrived, for his safety and the firefighters.
The Hillsboro fire trucks showed up first. They set up near the front of the house. The pumper-truck, fully loaded with treated water, was bright and shiny; the pump motors started on the first try. Our pump motor usually took a little priming before it would start. Hillsboro aimed one hose at the propane tank to keep it cool and another targeted the front roof.
Before they finished setting up, the Peoria fire wagon ambled into the yard. I motioned them to the rear of the house. The rental was fully engulfed in flame and would require an all out assault from the front and rear if anything was to be salvaged. Charlie, a retired air force firefighter, and I rolled out the first hose and went to the back door. The door provided an excellent view inside the home; the bottom half was wood, but the top half was glass. Using the nozzle, I broke the glass and sprayed water into the back room in a counter-clockwise motion to arrest the flame and smoke long enough to see what we were up against.
I could see through the back room into the kitchen. It looked like a clear path, so we stepped back so I could kick in the locked door. My foot broke through the rotted wood, leaving me straddling the splintered wood with one foot inside the burning structure and one outside on the wet, slippery steps. I tried to calm down and assess the situation. Then, I noticed an acetylene bottle in the corner of the room. Wrapped around the bottle were two tires, fully engulfed in flames.
“Get me out of here, NOW,” I yelled back at Charlie.
Without hesitating, Charlie turned the nozzle lever off and threw his arms under mine. He pulled and tugged, finally releasing me from my precarious predicament. We both fell into a pool of water that was beginning to puddle up near the base of the White Oak. The cool splash soothed my overheated face; the muddy water left dirty streaks down the front of my protective visor.
Instead of entering the house, we set up a hose to spray directly on the bottle of pressurized gas. If it were to explode, there would be a lot of injured firemen leave the scene that day.
Hillsboro stabilized the front of the house enough to send two guys to the rear to assist us. They took a hose to the side window, directly under the White Oak, and worked on knocking back the flames from that angle. One of the firemen, Gus, dropped his section of hose and started spinning; his arms were flailing about like a mad man. At first, I thought an ember had gotten under his fire retardant jacket. Then I saw the snake wrapped across his shoulders. The four foot chicken snake had fallen from the tree, dead from the smoke. All Gus knew was that it was a snake and it was on him. He didn’t wait around to see if it was dead or a live.
The snake incident so stunned Gus that he walked over to the fence to gather himself. As he leaned on a post, a swarm of ground hornets attacked him. With his arms flailing about again, he took off across the yard towards the cab of our truck. In all of the excitement, the Blue Healer joined in the chase. I don’t believe Gus ever left the Hillsboro city limits to fight another fire.
After about an hour, we extinguished the fire. Three quarters of the house had burned to cinders, but we were able to salvage some of the renter’s personal effects. He arrived on the scene as we were cleaning up. The shock on his face quickly vanished when he saw his dog.
I never heard what caused the fire. I did learn that the acetylene bottle was empty and open, so it posed no risk. It just scared the devil out of us. The owner leased another of his rent houses at a lower rate to the man to help him get back on his feet. Occasionally, I talk to some of my friends from that little department; we always end up talking about that fire. Because no one was hurt, we can have a good laugh about Gus and his adventures.