Autumn Memories of the Great Fire

26 Sep

This is a memory of a Catskills event that could have been a disaster. It is about the day my brother and I almost set the entire forest on fire. I still get a cringe in my stomach when I think about it. But to be absolutely truthful, I also have to tell the not so happy stories as well.

My grandparents had purchased the ‘big house,’ about 1/3 of a mile up the road from their bungalow colony in Kauneonga Lake. When the purchase was made, the house and the bungalow behind it were a bit neglected. They were still livable, but there was much maintenance that had to be done to bring the property back to life.

Among the issues was that the brush and trees had grown up around the bungalow. This had to be cleared out … eventually.

It was September, probably around 1963, the year after they had bought the property. We had spent our first summer there, living in the bungalow, instead of at the colony.

My brother believes it happened in the spring. All I remember was the grey. 

That summer one of the boys, who lived in the house next to the ‘big house,’ shown my brother and I how he made fire circles in the forest behind our homes and set fires. He was a few years older than us and seemed very sure of what he was doing.  We were intrigued. It was fascinating and scary at the same time. We never made the fires, we just watched him.
That fall, when we went back up to the Catskills for my Dad to help my Grandfather close up the bungalows, my brother and I went into the woods behind the bungalow at the big house and made a fire circle.

I hate to even say what happened next. But compulsion for the truth is making me.

We were young. I was 8 and my brother was 9. ( My brother thinks we were a bit older.) We did not make a very good fire circle. The rocks did not completely form a circle. The leaves were all around. It was now autumn and the leaves and brush were dry. Even though we had water with us, we did not have enough. And, yes, the fire escaped from the circle.

My brother said the problem was the wind. When Billy taught him to make the fires there was no wind. He had started two or three that were no problem. He had me come out to see the last one, which escaped. 

My brother and I were frantic. We tried to put it out. We threw water on it. We stomped on it. But it would not go out and it was getting bigger.  We got our sister out of the bungalow. 

We ran to the house and told Grandma and Mom that there was a FIRE. We had no phone and no car there. They told us to run to the bungalows and tell Dad and Grandpa. I don’t think we ever ran as fast in our lives. My brother was ahead of me.   We screamed when we got to the bungalows, “There’s a fire at the house! A fire!”

Grandpa and Dad came running!

I honestly do not remember how they called the fire department. Except there was a phone in the laundry house, perhaps it was still connected. Or perhaps one of them drove into town. It is a blur in my mind.

My brother said that Grandma ran to Finks and they called to report the fire. 

They drove back to the house. I think my brother and I walked back. As we walked, we could hear the loud noise as the volunteer fire department sirens went off. When we arrived at the house , Grandpa and Dad were already at the bungalow. It seemed as if dozens of cars were their with all the volunteer firemen. Then the fire engine arrived and drove up the long driveway to the bungalow.

We were lucky. The firemen put out the flames before they reached the bungalow or any other buildings. The fire never made it to the woods. The forest was safe as was the bungalow colony (Top Hill) that backed up to the side of our woods.

The brush and small trees to the sides and behind the bungalow were brunt and now filled with water.

The fire chief and my Dad and Grandpa talked for a while. My brother and I were scared. We knew we were in BIG trouble.

They came to talk to us. “We think it was spontaneous combustion,” they told us. “There were lots of bottles and rags hidden in the brush. We think that is what caused the fire.”

“What is spontaneous combustion?” I wanted to know but I kept quiet. They think that is what started the fire? I felt a sense of immense relief. We were not going to go to jail!!!

My brother and I nodded our heads. Of course they all knew the truth. But that is what the volunteer fire chief was going to put in his report. He knew us and our parents and our grandparents.

The firemen cleaned up, packed up their gear and left our property. They told my Dad to keep a hose near the scene of the fire, and keep checking it to make sure there were no flare ups. I think he watched it through out the night.  But there were no problems. The fire was OUT!

My brother and I walked back with our parents and grandparents to see what had happened. Grandpa and Dad sort of smiled at each other. “Well at least you cleared out the brush,” we were told. “But do not ever light a fire again. You could have set the entire woods on fire!!!’

We were told not to ever touch fire again. This was said to us multiple times for the rest of the weekend.  I think because we were so scared, they decided our fear was punishment enough.  Our only punishment: my brother and I had to help clean out the brunt brush, grass, small trees and junk that was left behind the bungalow under the watchful eye of my grandfather.

My brother says he had to dig out all the burnt blueberry bushes and clean out all the brush and plant the new grass. I did not have to do as much. 

We never, ever set another fire!

I have been scared of fire ever since. I always worry that it will get out of control. I don’t own a fire pit. I never light my fireplaces. I keep fire away from me. The memories of the Great Fire have stayed with me forever.

 

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5 Responses to “Autumn Memories of the Great Fire”

  1. Bonnie September 26, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    Great story Where exactly was top hill? We went to a colony in kauneonga lake also.Rosenbergs.

    • zicharon September 26, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

      West Shore Road, next to Kauneonga Park. My grandparent’s bungalows was across the street from the Lake toward the town of Kauneonga Lake.

  2. Robin September 27, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    Glad that you and your brother and your property were okay. We learned a lot of valuable life lessons in those woods up in the mountains.Top Hill and Fink’s were just down the road from the colony I went to, Sheppy’s.

    • zicharon September 27, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

      I remember Sheppy’s as well.

  3. Amy September 27, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    That does sounds terrifying. But how smart your parents were to realize you needed no additional scolding.

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