Fire is an incredibly unpredictable force of nature and not something to be taken lightly.
~any sane human being
Don’t EVER use gasoline (or kerosene or diesel) in an effort to burn plants, piles of brush or anything else for that matter outside your house.
~Southern advice to folks in other regions
In a recent BBC Future article, journalist David Robson explored the possibility that humanity may have reached “peak intelligence” and that “human intellectual potential may actually be declining.” According to researchers, along with our rise in manipulating more complex forms of technology, there’s been a fall in critical thinking skills. As if the American political scene wasn’t evidence enough of this phenomenon, I personally experienced such a lapse in common sense while visiting the USA in April.
Convenience vs environmental and personal safety
America’s DIY culture, along with large, intensely landscaped tracts of suburban and rural land, have opened the door to many an accident just waiting to happen. When facing a battle with tough, razor sharp foliage, many gardeners (especially in the American South) forgo the scraped arms and burn back some plants in the fall or early spring. While burning dead plants is an often faster, labor-saving method of disposal when compared to cutting and hauling brush away, the health and environmental risks far outweigh any possible benefits. Trust me. I unwittingly did the research for you on this one.
when common sense takes a vacation
So it was that on April 22 while visiting my Sisters (and yes, they are a proper noun) in North Carolina, I used gasoline in an effort to set alight a large pampas grass plant. The still-green foliage didn’t want to burn, so I did the ‘logical’ (NOT!) thing and added more gas while being too close to the plant. An unseen spark lay smoldering within the grassy mound. Instantaneously, a flaming whoosh like dragon’s breath flashed from the bottom of the plant and onto my pants.
In another stroke of ‘what was I thinking’, I was wearing a pair of loose-fitting poly/cotton sweat pants, not practical work clothing that would have provided some degree of protection. So what happened next?
The fight or flight response
Any of you who have experienced intense ‘fight or flight’ situations know that your brain and other body systems react instinctively in such life or death situations. As the flames spread to and climbed up the right leg of my pants, I fled away from the flames emanating from the bush. In the distance, I heard a voice saying “drop and roll,” a voice which I heeded. Thank you Sister!
I found myself on the ground realizing that simply rolling was not going to put out the flames. It was clear to me that the fabric content of my pants made them highly flammable. Now, here, lying on the grass in a neighbor’s back yard, my mind told me the only thing to do was get them off my body ASAP. To accomplish this, my tennis shoes–which I’d laced quite securely that day (don’t want any falls now, do we?)–had to come off first.
Again, reacting on instinct, I quickly pushed the pants down using my left foot/shoe and right hand until they were against my right shoe. I then began kicking furiously with my left foot/shoe until the right shoe and flaming pants were away from my body.
I jumped up (yes, like a gymnast completing an Olympic routine), glanced at the melted flesh on my right leg, and headed toward the house–prancing in my untouched underwear–while the neighbor and my Sister rushed toward me in an effort to help. A powerful rush of adrenaline had assumed control of all bodily functions as I set my sights on getting medical care.
Let me repeat this again for the foolhardy or those who have a bit of pyromania lurking within: Gasoline is–DUH!–very unstable when combined with a spark or flame and completely unpredictable!
Two months of recuperation and contemplation followed. I will spare you the details of preventing burn infection and dealing with the excruciating pain as skin and nerve cells have continued to restore themselves. Just as my life was changed by two major car accidents when I was in my 20s, this has been yet another experience that will forever color the person I’m still becoming. To put it mildly, my empathy for burn victims has certainly been heightened.
Almost three months have passed since the accident and I was well enough to return to Colombia last week. I’m eternally grateful for the excellent care my two wonderful Sisters gave their very independent brother. Most of all, I realize how VERY lucky I am that I wasn’t burned more seriously.
I certainly don’t feel like a victim. Instead, I feel incredibly fortunate to have done something very stupid and survived mostly intact.