Home Page

Feeling The Burn

By Tina Traster

October 15, 2009 -- "Holy smokes!” I yelped. “There’s a fire next door!”

My husband got up from his rocking chair and joined me at the window.

“They’ve got a bonfire going,” he said, squinting at the scarlet plume through a barrier of trees. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Not a big deal?” I screeched. “Look at those California wildfires on the TV. Tell those people it’s not a big deal. This is a big deal. They’re foolish. They’re going to set the woods on fire!”

“Not if you can help it,” he said, as I already had one foot out the door.

The teenage girl who lives next door and her shaggy-haired male friend were tossing wood planks into a blaze that shot skyward from a fire pit, essentially a bowl on legs. While I’m the first to have fond memories of toasting marshmallows around a campfire, I couldn’t see the logic of stoking a flame in a shrub-ringed driveway at the edge of acres of woods. Woods my neighbor and I share.

“What would it take for a stray wind to pick up and spark a disaster?” I said to the girl. “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe,” she answered.

Not being her mother, I couldn’t ask her to extinguish the flame. Instead, I went back home and called the police. As I was dialing, my husband asked if I thought it was absolutely necessary to get them involved.

Many years ago, I was a student in London. I slept in a tiny bedroom with broken windows at the top of a rooming house in Notting Hill. I’d been given a space heater to keep the room warm but was told to turn it off at night. One evening, I must have fallen asleep while studying. I woke to a smoke-filled room hours later. A synthetic blanket had fallen on the space heater and ignited a fire. I remember what it was like to stumble through the black smoke. That is not something you forget.

Yes, it was necessary to call the police, if that’s what it would take to get the flame doused. “I doubt it’s legal to start a fire in your driveway,” I said.

“Fire pits are sold everywhere,” my husband replied. “They must be legal.”

The sergeant who answered the phone unequivocally stated, “No, ma’am, open burning is not legal in the county.” He said an officer was on the way.

In the meantime, I checked the town’s code on open fires on the Internet. The sergeant was correct. Open burning was not permitted, just as it is banned in New York City.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the patrol car roll into the neighbor’s driveway, but shortly after he left, the flame continued to lick the night sky.

“What?” I fumed, my face pressed to the window. “It’s still burning!”

I called the police dispatcher again and said I didn’t understand why the flame had not been put out. A patrol car sailed into my driveway five minutes later.

“I’ve been over there, and it’s under control. There’s an adult supervising,” the policeman explained to me.

“But it’s not legal to have an open fire in the county,” I said.

“I’m not familiar with that law, ma’am.”

“It’s in the town code,” I told him.

“Ma’am,” he said, “do you want to make a big deal over this?”

It’s surreal moments such as these when I’m reminded why I’ve always related to Alfred Hitchcock’s sardonic depiction of the police. How did I become the problem? I just wanted the fire put out.

“I have a 150-year-old wood house, four cats and a kid,” I replied with enough hysteria to make him squirm.

“OK, ma’am,” he said, pulling a tiny pad and pen from his back pocket. “Name, date of birth, phone number.” After he took my vitals, he rolled his eyes, got back in his patrol car and went next door to do his job.

The next day, I called the town’s fire inspector to see what he knew about the legality of bonfires in fire pits. He said an open flame in the county is illegal but that “we only get a handful of calls a year about them.” I asked him what they do when they get calls. “We go to the residence and issue a verbal warning. Repeat offenders can be fined up to $1,000.”

The fire inspector said he only hears about people burning fires when a neighbor calls to complain. “This year, we’ve only had one call.”

I guess people in my leafy Rockland County suburb hadn’t been watching CNN’s extensive coverage of the scorched hills above Hollywood.

Columns | Essays | HuffPo Blog | Newspapers | Magazines | Business/Finance | Travel | About Me | Contact