Sunday, 24 April 2016


One of the problems with living out in the country is the hazard of being away from emergency services. We hear all the time about a fire starting in someone's home and by the time the fire department arrives, about all that's left to do is try to keep the fire from spreading and to push the charred remains into the now opened cellar and fill the hole in. Begin again in a slightly different location. There was a couple of occasions on the old ranch where we had some devastating fires.
Back in '59 the barn burned down with much the same results as the aforementioned situations. Some time after the place was sold, fire broke out in the old shop and leveled the place. At that time the fire department didn't need to control the spreading as it was raining a deluge out there. The worst was the early fall of 2012 when a fire that started in a combine about nine miles to the west of the old ranch. There was a high wind blowing at the time and the fire headed east right into what was left of the ranch.

The barn that replaced the one lost in '59 was lost again. The corrals and the outbuildings also succumbed to the fire storm; the only buildings that were saved were the main house and garage, and a house that Dad built in around '67 for a hired man and his wife. Oh, and the massive trees that surround the main house survived with only a temporary loss of color. But there was a time many years before the first barn fire that could've ended up as a disaster.

Winters in the Chinook Belt are by nature easy to take. No real deep-freezes unless you consider that 104 day cold snap in the winter of '69 when the temperature never rose above zero (Fahrenheit) until almost spring. True we can get those Siberian Expresses that float way up above the polar ice cap and drop down on us causing the temperatures to plummet below zero for upwards of three weeks. It's kind of nasty, especially when you have to venture out every day to look after and feed cattle.

The ranch was reasonably mechanized. That is to say that we had means, other than horse and wagon, to feed the cattle. We had trucks that could be coaxed into life fairly easily--unless the block heaters weren't working or someone forgot to plug them in--and when the snow got too deep, Dad would simply fire up the wheeled tractor or crawler and hitch it to the hay sled to deliver feed.

One bright sunny day, in the very early fifties, a day that turned out to be far from mild, Dad ventured out from the warm confines of the old ranch house to look after his means of providing said old ranch house with the means to continue giving the warm confines. Simply put, he headed out to feed the cattle. It was cold out, the fourth or fifth day where the mercury just simply hid, shivering in that bulb on the bottom of the thermometer; it was so cold that the brass monkeys were considering careers in hairdressing. It was almost as cold as JC's ex-wife's side of the bed.

There was a lot of snow on the ground, and where the cattle were holed up, passage by truck was hazardous in that there was a good chance that there would be more time spent shoveling the truck out of a snowbank than feeding the cows. A standard tractor was nearly as risky but that's where the crawler came in. Fire up the D-2 Cat, hitch it up to the sleigh and head out. It was next to impossible to get the Cat stuck.

The Cat was in the metal clad machine shed. Dad went out to the shed, slid the doors open and prepared to start the crawler. Now I don't know if it's just me, or Dad, or all of us who venture outside to go into an unheated building in the dead of winter, but it seems that the interior of a typical machine shed is at least twice as cold as it was outside. Dad took one look at the D2 shivering just inside the door and realized that his chances of starting that thing in 30 below weather were slim to none unless some outside source of heat was brought in to help warm the engine up. Dad didn't waste his time, he just headed over to the blacksmith shop and came back with the tiger torch and a bottle of propane. He carefully positioned a piece of thick-walled pipe under the Cat between the tracks then set the torch so that the flame would direct its heat more rearward than up. In that way the heat would thaw out the entire machine so that, should you luck out and get the engine running, you could still turn the transmission over, and thus get the crawler to move so that you could actually get some work done.

Everything went just fine. Dad lit the torch and made sure that it was secured so that it would direct the heat as planned. Confident that everything would be OK, Dad left the shed and went over to the barn to check on a couple of cows that were going to calve early. It turned out to be a good idea because one of the cows was down and the calf had a leg back. Dad, being a vet, quickly tied up the cow then worked away at the calf's front leg, eventually getting it pointing in the proper direction. The actual birth took place soon after that; so Dad, confident that everything was OK in the barn, donned his heavy coat again and headed back to the shed.

It was a good thing he came back when he did because he saw that one side of the Cat's engine was ablaze. It turned out that the hose to the torch had a twist in it which pulled itself around pulling the torch in a different direction. Where it was perched on that piece of pipe allowed the torch to point up at the left side of the engine, which thawed out rapidly, then the heavy accumulation of grease reached its combustion temperature and presto, Dad had a hot Cat.

Well, he first shut of the valve at the propane tank then ran back to the shop and came out with one of those old brass-bodied Pyrene extinguishers, the type which had a T-handled plunger at one end and a nozzle at the other. To operate the extinguisher, you twisted the handle to unlatch it then pull it out of the body and shove it back in. Of course it would also be prudent to have the spray nozzle directed at the fire. He unlatched that handle then pulled the plunger out. Aiming the spray nozzle at the flames he gave a mighty shove and pushed that plunger in.

Now when there's a rush of air or gas into a semi-closed area, there's a rush of displaced air or gas that rushes right back out. In the case of the extinguisher, there was a lot more chemical sprayed than there was capacity for air. Flames rushed out; hot air rushed out; extinguisher fumes rushed out, and if it could, I think the unburned grease and scorched paint would've rushed out as well. All Dad could remember was this wall of hot gas and flame that rushed right out into his face just as he was breathing in. It sapped his wind and sent a burning sensation right down his throat. He felt that he was breathing his last and it was about that exact moment that Dad thought: 'to hell with the crawler, let the damn thing burn!'

He lost track of time for a minute or so but when Dad woke up, he was laying flat on his back on the floor of the shed, the extinguisher on the floor just inches from his grasp. He lifted his head to see the Cat, a little pall of smoke still rising from somewhere underneath. The fire was out and a quick check revealed only superficial damage. Dad fired up the small 'Pony engine,' which was used to fire up the main diesel engine and Dad was able to feed the cows that day.

There's more than one moral to the story: When using a tiger torch to warm up a frozen piece of equipment, don't leave it unattended. And when using a pyrene extinguisher because of not properly adhering to the first piece of advice, take a deep breath and hold it before discharging it. Failure to do so can do more than just extinguish the fire...


  1. Yikes! I remember this story. Just didn't know all the details. How did we ever survive?!

  2. Dad said that those old chemical extinguishers used to put out more than just a fire. Those old glass globes that people love to swipe from old farm houses could be deadly when they emptied. I also wonder just how capable they were at putting out a fire...