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The May Grass Fire
by Karyl Rosenberg

It was one of those warm windy May days when the lake effect weary southeastern Wisconsinites can say, "Yup, there's hope for us. Spring and summer are real and with us." I was in 7th grade at a school about a half mile west of my house in a still largely rural community about fifteen miles north of downtown Milwaukee. It was a Friday afternoon and much to our delight, we had an outdoor gym class rather than the usual Friday square dance session in the gym.

As we were playing whatever games of low organization 7th graders could tolerate on a warm spring day, someone happened to notice a grey smoky cloud developing over the horizon to the east. Shortly after, the slow whine of a mechanical fire engine siren could be heard working its way from the station about three miles west of our school over the rolling hills of Hwy 167. Soon, the four of us who lived in what seemed to be the area of the smoke had gathered to wonder aloud about conditions near our houses. However, it wasn't long after the siren sound that the smoke had thinned and none of us had been called in on emergency request, so we figured it wasn't much to worry about. There was less than an hour before we were to go home anyway.

After what seemed like the longest hour, we boarded our yellow buses and headed for home. As the bus turned on to Oriole Lane, the cause of our earlier observations became apparent. A looping black boundary snaked along the hill, starting from the back yard of the corner house, widening through areas of formerly tall, wild alfalfa, narrowing where the topology or human landscaping had reduced the fuel availability. Since my house was the closest to the road and on the edge of a wide expanse of field, the entire area to the north and east was burned over. In the low area just behind our garage were some large ruts where, as my mom put it, "That old fire truck got stuck and the grader had to come and pull it out."

Having never seen the results of a field fire before, I wondered aloud whether the grass and flowers would return for the upcoming summer.

"Don't worry," replied my mom, "just let us have a little rain and you'll be amazed."

"How did this start?" I asked.

"Well, we think the lid blew off this burning barrel and then the whole thing blew over, since there's no charred grass south of there," Mom replied. "I wish people would be more careful when they burn their trash."

Sure enough, as frequently follows on warm May afternoons, a thunderstorm drenched us later that evening. Within a week, bright green shoots were showing through everywhere in the burned area. By the time school was out, we had one of the nicer fields to play in than we'd had in years. Burning can encourage the growth of plants that are more controllable and pleasant than what was growing in the area before.

It's been fourty-one years since this grass fire. The fields have either gone into early forest succession or developed into suburban yards. I occasionally pass by my childhood house and wonder if any remnants of this distant past remain. The last time I looked, the ruts were still there but the city of Mequon now has a comprehensive open burning ordinance.

Sponsored by:
Wisconsin Arts Board CIMSS UW Folklore Program