For the uninitiated, “Burning the North Forty” was a term used by the lower, lower tier of Morgan County’s landed aristocracy when they decided to burn off a part of their pastures in the early spring.
That exercise would ensure a lush landscape for the cows to graze on the rest of the year. Benefits however, do not come without some inherent risk; like setting off a wildfire that would run rampant over much more than 40 acres.
Daddy was in charge of this procedure at our farm and I don’t think he was a natural-born arsonist, it just kind of worked out that way. Our annual pasture burning activity inevitably turned into something more than was intended. The fact of the matter was that every time he set a fire it got away from him in a big way. An ill-timed puff of wind, extra dry leaves, or an inattentive son would allow the flames to gain entry to the woods and there it went.
My dad decided to dedicate the first Friday each March to “burning the North Forty” and as an annual event it eventually became a local holiday nearly on par with the Cotton Gin and the Sunflower Festivals. It was known far and wide as Ashy Friday (not to be confused with Ash Wednesday). The local populace would turn out in droves to see how many acres of woods Daddy’s fire was going to burn down that particular year. Raffles and side wagers were not uncommon. Had we been more astute in marketing this event we could have sold chili, candied apples and had a petting zoo. We would have made a killing.
Unfortunately, not everyone was enamored with the occasion. The local fire departments lived in fear of that day. Volunteer members would suddenly be called out of town on urgent business in the days preceding the “burning”. Those still in town were prone to bouts of various illnesses the names of which sounded grave but actually lasted only a couple of days. Things got so bad that in the days before Daddy quit smoking all he had to do was strike up a Marlboro and fire alarms would sound all over the county. Firemen crews would show up at our house in full battle array.
To his credit, Daddy diligently used every conceivable method to prevent these towering infernos. The most often used strategy was to space his sons strategically around the perimeter armed with pine boughs with which we were to extinguish any flames that were trying to make their way into the woods. Unfortunately, we did not have enough manpower to cover all the possible points of entry and sooner or later a big flare up would occur. We would rush to the scene of those rising flames but our little pine limbs were woefully inadequate and were fried to an extra crispy state in a matter of seconds — and the wildfire would be off and raging.
Some of our most famous blazes would make those you see on TV today look like a campfire. We actually went to naming them like hurricanes. Take Marilyn (for Monroe) as an example. We named the 1970 fire that because it was very hot and fast moving. That blaze was among the most-renowned of all time. Still talked about to this day, it burned down 90 acres of woods, jumped over one beaver swamp, two ponds and crossed three public roads before it fizzled out next to a plowed field. The betting was fierce that day on just how long the historic conflagration would continue.
Daddy eventually reaped some positive notoriety from these episodes. The National Forest Service actually considered him for poster-boy status but he lost out to Smokey the Bear. I always thought that the slogan “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” was right down Daddy’s alley or maybe I should say right down his firebreak. Alas, Smokey nipped him in a close contest but I still maintain Daddy should have won that competition in a landslide.
Looking back on those extraordinary happenings, it would be easy to conclude that Daddy’s “scorched earth policy” was a result of negligence or at least inattentiveness, but truthfully it was just an annual run of bad luck. I guess the moral of the story is that if you decide to burn your “North Forty” have plenty of pine boughs handy — along with some chili and candied apples for the spectators.
Articles and columns by Alvin Richardson about hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports appear weekly in the Statesboro Herald. Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.