Roy and Millie Escape a forest Fire
Roy and the Forest Fire
Roy’s bladder woke him up; it reminded him that he drank too much at dinner. He reluctantly rolled out of his lower bunk, slipped into his mocs, and padded out of the cabin without slamming the screen door and awakening his bunkmates. Dawn was still an hour away but the full moon helped him find the pee can next to the big pine tree. As he relieved himself, he looked down through the trees at the lake and noticed something unusual. A thick white haze had settled over the lake sometime during the night and was beginning to envelop the cabins along the shore. After a few whiffs, Roy realized that the haze was actually smoke, and there was a fire near by.
The moon illuminated the smoke and gave it an eerie glow on the still lake. It was a beautiful sight but Roy was concerned. He wondered if last night’s campfire had not been smothered properly and had reignited. He knew that a forest fire could be dangerous because the summer had been dry and the ground under the trees and around the cabins had a three-inch cover of dry brown pine needles. Roy returned to the little cabin and crawled back into his bunk. He listened to the regular breathing of his sleeping bunkmates oblivious of the smoke. He wondered if he should awaken them in case there was a forest fire near-by? Not able to sleep, he lay quietly, sniffing the air and waiting anxiously for morning and the sound of reveille over the camp’s loudspeaker system.
Finally, there it was. Someone had been turned up the volume so the bugle notes woke everyone with a start. A voice from another cabin yelled, “Turn it down, let me sleep!” The whole camp began to stir, kids washed up and made their bunks, tidied up and swept the worn wood floors. The sound of slamming screen doors was constant as the camp came to life. Nobody said anything about the smell of smoke, nor did they seem concerned when Roy asked if they smelled it too.
“Yeah, so what. It’s just a campfire someplace.” The bugle shattered the morning silence again, and every one headed off toward the Dining Hall for flag-raising and the pledge.
Roy noticed that the camp director and the senior staff were not present in the mess hall. Half way through breakfast they arrived together and huddled at their table as Director Deme urgently talked to them. After breakfast came the big announcement, about the forest fire! Mr. Deme explained that Camp Talcott was in no danger, but there was a fire on the other side of the mountain and it seemed to be creeping up to the ridge above Camp Greenkill. Roy was immediately concerned because Camp Greenkill was the girl’s camp five miles down the road where his sister Silly Millie was a camper.
Millie was thirteen, two years younger than Roy, but they were unusually close and had many exciting experiences together. In the past, Roy, Millie and their dad had done a lot of hiking, camping, visiting zoos and museums, and learning as much about nature and animals as they could. They shared a deep love of animals and nature. Millie’s curiosity and interest in nature often got her into trouble and Roy had found it necessary to rescue her from many predicaments that she always seemed to fall into. That’s why he called her Silly Millie. She was too young to be a Junior Counselor like Roy, but that was her ambition for next summer.
Mr. Deme announced that the regular camp program would be changed for the day because he needed some counselors to help make a fire break to protect Camp Greenkill. Every counselor volunteered because it sounded exciting, but only twenty were eventually chosen. While the campers went on to the planned activities the counselors piled into the camp trucks and started down the road to Greenkill. Among the counselors sat Roy. No one had questioned him as he stood with the volunteers and so when they climbed aboard, so did he. Roy was big for his age; in fact he was bigger than some of the counselors. He knew them all well and they thought nothing of the fact that he had joined them.
The smell of smoke became stronger as they drove the five miles down the washboard gravel road, and as they pulled into Greenkill they noticed that the sky above the ridge overlooking the camp was dark with smoke clouds. Forest rangers and volunteer firemen from the nearby town were organizing the volunteers and handing out shovels, hoes, rakes, and backpack water pumps. No one noticed Roy as he ran over to the ball field where the campers and counselors had gathered. Six buses were waiting just in case they had to be evacuated due to the advancing fire.
Roy asked if anyone knew where Millie Dimwitty was, and to his surprise, nobody did. Roy knew Millie had a mind of her own and sometimes did unpredictable things. The counselors were already looking for her back at the cabins and along the lakefront. They had guessed she was down at the Nature Hut where three baby raccoons, several turtles and a few snakes were caged, but ten minutes later still no one had found her. One of her bunk mates told Roy that she saw Millie on the trail winding up to the Infirmary, so Roy took off as fast as he could up the trail. The infirmary was deserted so he stood on its porch looking around and trying to decide what to do next.
The trail to the Infirmary continued on up the mountain to the ridge overlooking the fire. Could it be that Millie had decided to hike up there to see how close the fire was? But why would she do such a thing? Roy new sometimes kids, and adults, do things that don’t make sense. Perhaps she wanted to determine whether or not she should liberate all the animals in the nature hut. If the fire threatened the camp someone had to save the animals. On a hunch, Roy leaped off the porch and ran up the trail to the ridge.
Ten minutes later, breathing heavily, Roy reached the top of the ridge and climbed on top of a large rock so he could scan the valley below. He called, “Millie, Millie. Where are you?” as loud as he could, over and over again. There was no reply except an echo. Roy could see the fire slowly progressing through the valley below him and part way up the mountainside in his direction. “Millie, Millie, where are you?” Still, there was no answer.
Finally, Roy decided to look elsewhere. It was then that he saw a red object about a hundred yards away down in the valley off to his right. It was moving and waving! Although he could not see clearly because of the smoke, the little figure appeared to be Millie. Roy had to think quickly. The trail from the Infirmary to the ridge had a fork in it and Millie must have taken the wrong fork. It was not the first time she had been lost. He and his dad had to search for her several times when she was little and wandered away by herself. Roy took off his shirt and waved it furiously back and forth in hope that Millie saw it, and then off he ran back down the trail to where it forked.
Roy followed the fork in Millie’s direction and negotiated the trail while running at break neck speed. Finally the trail started to wind back down into the valley so Roy was forced to take longer strides leaping from rock to rock and from spot to spot without regard to his own safety. Roy estimated that he had been running five minutes when he finally stopped to call Millie’s name again. Now, the whole sky was dark with smoke and it was drifting lower through the trees limiting his vision.
“Millie, where are you?” he called as loud as he could. This time he got an answer from down the trail.
“Roy, Roy, over here?” He raced downward until he saw her, sitting on a rock holding her ankle. Roy was furious with Millie but now was not the time to ball her out. Besides he was so happy to have found her.
“I got lost Roy and twisted my ankle”
“So I see. Can you walk Sis?”
Millie got up and hobbled a few steps with difficulty. Roy was worried because she was too big for him to carry very far or fast, and he knew they had to get moving because of the approaching fire. Roy looked off in the direction of the fire. The smoke was thicker now but he could not see any flames yet. Several raccoons scurried by and birds were scattering through the trees away from the fire. As they stared off in the direction of the approaching fire, a group of deer appeared out of the smoke, running gracefully through the trees. They did not seem to be panicked and were not moving at full speed. Roy and Millie stood quietly as they approached so the deer did not see or hear them, nor could they have smelled them because of the smoke. The deer ran directly toward them and would have passed within feet except that Roy raised both hands.
From the deer’s point of view, they must have been surprised as if a tree raised its limbs and moved. They stopped abruptly in alarm, and were about to bolt off in another direction when Roy spoke to them, as only he knew how. “ Don’t worry, we are just trying to get away from the fire like you are.” The lead deer, a large doe, sniffed the air and looked directly at Roy. For some reason, she did not panic. She cautiously approached and sniffed at his outstretched hand. Roy gently touched her wet nose with a finger as he continued talking. “We don’t mean you any harm. We want to be your friends.” Roy knew that the deer did not understand his words, but he felt that the frightened animal must have sensed that he and Millie were not a threat. The other deer approached and Millie ran her hand along the back of the closet one. They milled around the kids momentarily before they took off again in the same direction they had been running.
Roy watched the deer make their way through the woods to what appeared to be a clearing about thirty yards behind them. The big doe stopped and looked back at Roy and Millie as if to say “ What’s wrong, why aren’t you following us?” At least that was the message that Roy imagined he had received from the doe. Somehow, as in the past, Roy seemed to be able to understand what animals were thinking.
If someone had asked Roy why he grabbed Millie around her waist and followed the deer, he probably could not have answered. Roy was having one of his unique moments, those moments that made him different from other kids, those moments that had mystified us for so many years.
As Roy’s father, I knew my son had an unusual gift. I didn’t understand it exactly, but there had been so many instances where Roy seemed to have an unexplained ability to communicate with animals. Roy and I had talked about it often but we had told no one else except mom and Millie and, of course, grandma. Grandma was sure it was a special gift from God, at least to her mind. I, on the other hand, knew there was a scientific explanation for Roy’s sensitivity to animals and their sensitivity to him but I did not fully understand it.
The deer had disappeared by the time Roy and Millie reached the edge of the clearing. The clearing was about the size of a football field. It was filled with tall stands of green marsh grass and cattails, and as the kids continued into it they began to sink into the wet marshlands. Soon they were wading knee deep through the dark water. The roaring sound of the fire seemed closer now and their backs were warm from the approaching flames. They looked over their shoulders in time to see the flames reach the edge of the marsh where they had been a minute before. They heard and saw a dead tree on the edge of the marsh explode into flames with a loud whoosh!
As they hurried toward the center of the marsh they noticed that many other animals had sought refuge there as well. There was a wet vixen with three kits foxpaddling not too far away, and Roy counted several raccoons, skunks, and opossums swimming and bounding from the little islands of thick marsh grass. He even noticed some snakes swimming nearby as they approached a large stand of lush mash grass in the middle of the clearing. Standing nervously before them, in the water between humps of grass were the deer.
The deer watched but didn’t move as Roy and Millie crouched down in the water next to them. The fire was raging all around the marsh now while smoke and glowing cinders from the burning pine trees rained down around them. Millie immediately began brushing the cinders off the back of two deer next to her. Roy had to reach over several times to brush cinders from his sister’s hair that she had not noticed. The peak of the fire lasted only a few minutes and soon it had stormed by either side of them. The trees at the far end of the marsh were the last to burn.
Roy looked around and counted eight different species of animals, predators and prey alike, crowded together taking refuge from the raging fire. It was fascinating to Roy that their normal behavior had changed when distracted by a common danger. A young black bear splashed the kids as he lumbered by barely noticing the kids. It stopped momentarily on the shore and then disappeared into the forest.
Roy and Millie stood up and looked about. Animals of all kinds were cautiously making their way to the shore, stopping, looking, smelling, listening, and trying to sense if the danger was past. Roy helped Millie wade toward the shore. They sat down on dry land, careful to avoid the smoldering pine needles around them. The deer followed them to the shore and stood nervously as if needing a little comfort.
“Wow, that was close” Millie ventured, as she reached out to touch the closet deer. “How strange.” she said, “The deer don’t seem to be afraid of us.”
Roy replied, “Maybe the fire has confused them and they don’t smell or recognize that we are humans.”
“Millie, did you notice that the tree trunks are not burned? Most of the dead branches, pine needles and cones were but the trees themselves are OK! The fire swept through so quickly it did not really kill many of the live trees.”
The kids rested together and took in the scene. Roy told Millie that fire was a natural and regular occurrence in the forest. “Fire was important to the survival of the forest and to the evolution and survival of animal and plant life.”
Millie was no dummy about nature. She loved animals as much as Roy and always listened when Roy and I explained things to her. She was more excited by their adventure than frightened. She was, however, feeling guilty about risking her safety and that of her brother because she got lost.
The kids sat and talked for a while, in the midst of the little deer herd when they heard a voice in the distance. Someone was calling from the ridge trail. The deer, still standing next to them, heard the voices as well. Their ears perked up and they looked in the direction of the approaching voices. Soon, several people appeared, walking down the smoldering trail. They waved at Roy and Millie and began running toward them. As they did, the deer took off in mass and bounded out of sight into the trees. Soon several firefighters from camp and two forest rangers surrounded Roy and Millie. They were surprised to see them because they had no idea that anyone was in the path of the fire.
“Are you guys alright? The fire just swept through here not more than ten minutes ago. How come you are not hurt? Why were all those deer hanging around?” The questions came as hot and heavy as the recent fire. Everyone was amazed that the kids were all right, with not so much as a single burn, although Millie’s hair was just a little singed. The forest rangers gave the kids some water, and brushed the ashes off them. They expertly fashioned a stretcher for Millie from saplings and two jackets. She got a ride all the way back to the camp.
Back at the Camp Infirmary, Millie told their story over and over again. A reporter from the nearby town newspaper took notes and some photos. Millie had a tendency to elaborate about everything and Roy could see the skepticism in the eyes of the reporter. The rangers were still amazed that the kids and the deer sought refuge from the fire together, and that the deer hung around after the fire. The ranger volunteered that the deer must have been disoriented or in a mild shock after the fire and did not know what else to do.
Roy did not dispute the theory; he just smiled and enjoyed the whole fuss they were making about the incident. He was glad that Millie was all right and that many animals had survived the fire. He was eager, however, to call Maggie and me and tell us about what happened. He knew we would be relieved that they were unhurt. Maggie would scold Millie for leaving the camp area and getting lost, but Roy knew I would be especially interested in his interaction with the animals. It was another example of Roy’s unusual and mysterious ability to communicate with them. Roy knew I would record the story in my journal along with the other wonderful things that had happened in the past.