With the advent of spring, and still on the heels of the Lake Christine fire — which is back in the news of late — my thoughts naturally turned towards nincompoops.
My first introduction to human-caused wildfire occurred on my first Colorado backpacking trip. I had just recently moved to the state from the damp and dreary Midwest, and had been schooled in the practice of burning one’s toilet paper when pooping in the woods via my only other wilderness experience to that point, which occurred in the even-damper northern plains of Alaska. That technique was nearly my undoing here in the parched height of summer, when, during my morning constitutional, I duly set match to paper and watched watchfully as the fire consumed the “mountain money.”
All was well with the universe, until the wadded-up paper un-wadded and an arm of burning toilet tissue arced back and touched down a few inches from my cat hole, setting alight a desiccated pile of leaves and pine duff. And so, comically I suppose to the woodland creatures observing me, I commenced to doing a fire-stamping dance around my little now-burning grove of trees, with pants around ankles of course. I managed to stomp the flames out, along with some other stuff in the process. My only thought through this slow-motion yet brief drama was: I don’t wanna be “That Guy.”
Many wildfires seem to have been initiated by That Guy. When contemplating the life lessons I want to impart to my children, “don’t be That Guy” ranks high among the potential words of wisdom, which I hope they manifest in their daily lives. It’s pretty timeless advice, and applies equally well to using matches, attending frat parties and asking someone to hold your beer while filming you doing something that, in retrospect, is not only ill-advised, but now caught on camera for posterity.
Not being That Guy is sort of a guiding ethos for me. Last spring, I was having a varmint problem; some kind of critter was digging around under my back yard. There’s an irrigation ditch in my back yard. And the berms for that ditch are above the grade of my house. A failure of the berm could lead to flooding of my home. And along this corridor live various semi-aquatic mammals, who tunnel happily in the clay, safe, it seems, from predation. The network of dens and tunnels risked undermining the entire berm, which I discovered one day when I stepped in my garden and the ground subsided under my foot into a two-feet-deep water-filled hole.
Well, that sort of trespass cannot stand; it is an intolerable affront to the sovereignty of Suburban Man, which, at least in theory, should be the antithesis of That Guy. So I inserted a garden hose into the tunnel and let it run. After an hour or so of injection, there was no sign that the tunnels were filling up, the water simply went in and disappeared.
I ruled out poison, what with the kids and dogs and other wild critters around, besides these were teeny little moles, not illegal aliens, trying to get into my back yard. Meanwhile, the semi-feral cats in the neighborhood are apparently too busy ambushing songbirds at my feeder to bother with burrowing varmints.
So I decided to try the smoke bomb approach. The smoke bomb approach is highly recommended for any boy that went through a pyromaniac phase, which is to say: most of them. The smoke bombs look like overgrown firecrackers, they have a fuse like firecrackers, and they even smell like firecrackers. The process is appropriately idiot-proof; you light one, shove it in the hole, and let it do its magic. The “magic” being subjecting the critters to suffocation via smoke inhalation. (I know, I know, but this was war.)
Conditions were dry that spring. As previously mentioned, I have a visceral fear of being That Guy. In this case, That Guy is the one who starts the entire neighborhood on fire through a Homer Simpson-like chain of poor planning, bad execution and bone-deep incompetence. I was not going to be accused of inadequate planning at least. So I had on hand a bucket of water and a charged garden hose. I donned protective attire as suggested by the manufacturer (eye protection, gloves and long sleeves). I also had a shovel ready, and also a large flat rock to place over the entry hole. I then waited for a cool and damp day with no wind. I then waited another couple days until my next door neighbor was gone. (I prefer no witnesses.)
Finally, the moment arrived for The Great Conflagration, which would hopefully lead to The Great Extermination. After widening the entry hole a bit, I prepared the smoke bomb (aptly named the “Revenge” brand), lit the fuse, held it boldly aloft for a moment like Clint Eastwood (gee, I wish I had thought to light it with a stogie), then shoved it down in the hole, and then … nothing. Nothing. A dud.
After waiting for what felt like a Very Long Time, I gingerly reached into the hole with gloved hand, extracted the impotent smoke bomb, and immediately raced over to my bucket of water to dunk the thing before it could explode in my face and blind me for life.
After recovering from that anaerobic panic attack, I readied myself to try again. This time I observed the lit fuse long enough to be sure the flame entered the smoke bomb itself. Upon doing so, I was fully assured of successful ignition through receiving a face full of the toxic smoke. Not to deprive the varmints of their full share, I promptly shoved it in the hole, but not before first imagining myself overcome by the fumes and then contemplating the rich irony therein. Perhaps my wife might come home to find me sprawled face-down in the back yard, my lifeless form in the process of having its unmentionables gnawed by a family of gophers. (There is another That Guy I have a fear of becoming: Pathetic Corpse Guy).
Next comes the good part, or so I thought. Soon, smoke would come pouring out of previously undiscovered connecting gopher entry holes all over my yard, and my neighbor’s yard too, as the vast underground network became exposed. Dozens of little smokestacks would emerge, which I would promptly fill in with my handy shovel, as directed by the product instructions.
Or not. Nada. The smoke disappeared down into the hole to the same place that all the water went off to – the bottomless pit of gopher hell. Yet the bomb itself did indeed produce smoke. I lifted the rock off to be sure. And thus restored to my perch at the top of the food chain, I retired to my patio, confident that the critter problem was eliminated.
Or not. The next morning, I went out and found the spent bomb (which I had left stuck down in the hole). The bomb was in fact out in the grass, a good 12 inches away from the hole, from whence if it had been forcibly ejected. What’s worse, the business end had been visibly chewed on by a rodent. It was undeniable that varmint was leaving me a message: not in my house, bubba.
Like many other Suburban Mans before me, I had been foiled by superior intellect and stronger will. The good news was though; I didn’t burn down the neighborhood. I was not That Guy, at least not on this day.
Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. His most sincere wish is that his last spoken word in life is anything but “doh!”