Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Why is fire so mesmerizing?

Photo courtesy Jaimie Branum Smith
Huge fire last night down the street that dead ends into my house, which meant I had a good view from the front door. I heard sirens, looked out and saw all the emergency vehicles. I told Jordan something was going on, thinking she’d look out the front door. When I heard the house alarm ding, I knew she hadn’t just looked—she’d gone out on the porch. And then my darling daughter became an ambulance chaser. She rushed back to report it was a big fire and she was going with neighbors Susan and Jay. Gave up finishing my evening toilette and went to the front door. Beyond all the emergency vehicles, I could see one window of one of the duplexes that are on the cul de sac down there. The window was alive with orange flames and though I watched for a while the flames didn’t abate. I expected the fire fighters to get a handle on it more quickly.

I don’t know anybody who lives down there, and the duplexes look comfortable but not high end housing. My thoughts were that I hope the residents and their pets, if any, got out and that some family had probably lost everything. As it turned out it was apparently two families.

Jordan came back with a report and smelling like she’d been around a campfire. Said it was terrifically hot there, but it was a neighbors’ gathering. Because fire is mesmerizing. I don’t doubt that my neighbors worried for the occupants, who apparently weren’t at home, but I doubt that was why they were there.

Jordan said they stood in the school parking lot, near the cul de sac, and fireman in full gear, face masks on, stood near them, waiting to see if there was an explosion which may explain the delay in putting the fire out. It looked to me, half an hour later, like it was still burning. I think they feared am explosion because flames were shooting high above the treetops.

Man has had fire for a million years, but we in this country don’t routinely set, maintain, and use fire during our childhood. One social scientist suggests that accounts for our fascination with it. In societies where fire is routinely used, children learn to master it and after that are disinterested. We have never achieved that mastery. We haven’t “learned” fire.

But I think there’s another element involved and that is power. We are fascinated and awed by the power of large fire, though we may be soothed by a small campfire. It’s a spectacle, and we know as individuals we can’t control it. I know I personally am horrified by fire and yet drawn to watch it. If I hadn’t been on a walker, I’d have joined the neighbors down the block. I feel the same fascination with a strong storm on water—I’ll admit I’ve never seen an ocean storm but I grew up on Lake Michigan and it can get ferocious. Once again I was terrified but fascinated.

This morning, after breakfast at the Old Neighborhood Grill, a friend and I drove by the fire site. Not much to see, mostly because there were only two windows which clearly indicated a burned-out building. Bu the walls and garage doors, etc. were only soot and smoke damaged. Kind of anticlimactic. There was some kind of crew there, and a dumpster already full, but I saw no sign of residents picking their way through their belongings. Still it made me sad for whoever called that home.

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