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Be wary of too much summertime 'fun' around fires

Word reached me recently that State Fire Marshal Mark Wallace was reminding Oregonians "to be fire safe during barbecues and cookouts to avoid tragedy during summer activities."

Always good advice, right?

But all I could think about was the many adventures we experienced growing up because my dad enjoyed fire a little too much.

I'm not suggesting for a minute that he was an actual pyromaniac - certainly not diagnosed by a medical professional, anyway - but whenever drinking beer (which, for him, was pretty much all the time) was mixed with fire-building, well, it could get hot.

My first glimpse of this proclivity of his came at an early age when he would respond to ant hills in the pasture or on the riverbank with a very large gas can.

Standard procedure was to pour about nine-tenths of the contents of the can all over the anthill - and then to make a little trail (or "fuse") by dribbling the remainder on the ground as far from the hill as it would go. Then, observing from this "safe distance," which was usually 20 or 30 feet, he would drop a match on the ground and watch as the flame shot from near his feet to the anthill, which invariably made a loud "whoomp!" at exactly the same time the ball of fire rose from the target.

There were few thrills in my childhood that surpassed the excitement of my dad's warfare against an anthill.

Later, however, we learned that this was perhaps a symptom of something.

A simple campfire had a way of turning into a towering inferno, partly because my dad, being a logger five or six days a week, also made cutting wood with a chainsaw his leisure-time hobby as well.

So, even if we were camped at our favorite spot along the Metolius River, we could count on the old man spending a fair amount of the day rattling around the base of Black Butte in his GMC pickup cutting up downed snags and almost-rotting logs to be hauled back to camp for the evening fire.

One summer he built the fire up to a size and structure not seen since my high school bonfire, and as the evening wore on, fueled by Blitz Weinhard and all the country songs his kids could think of, Dad got the flames leaping so high up they were blackening the limbs of the nearest Ponderosa pine 20 or 30 feet up.

That was also the night he got mad at one of the aluminum lawn chairs because the plastic webbing broke, tossed it on top of the fire - quite a feat because the top was way up there - and the entire chair melted in less than 10 seconds. The next morning, we found a little globule of melted metal in the ashes.

But, according to the lore told and retold among members of my family, the old man's penchant for big fires reached its zenith in the summer of 1970, when the fire he concocted on the beach at Waldport for the Fourth of July fireworks actually resulted in the arrival of the local fire department, which apparently felt obligated to douse and destroy the monster blaze he had built of driftwood scattered up and down the shore of the Alsea Bay.

Although those who were there (which I was not) tended to giggle and smirk during the telling of the Great Fourth of July Beach Fire, my mom's versions of the tale were always brief, stern and full of references to "the drinking."

A few years after that, my brothers and I were gathered in the Ochocos outside of Prineville, where we had an annual get-together called a "hunting trip" but which was almost always limited to drinking, singing and talking really, really loud.

My dad had already gone to bed when my brother Pat and I started building a campfire that would have done the old man proud - and, if closer to town, might have brought out the fire department.

Throughout the evening we each ventured out as far as the glow from the fire would allow to pick up sticks and limbs and cones, anything we could find to toss on the blaze.

Next morning, when we saw the perfectly round, 100-yard-wide circle of nothing but dirt - looking very much like a small nuclear bomb had gone off - I knew our dad would be proud.

The advice issued by the state fire marshal was pretty predictable, and it mostly had to do with barbecuing. Only do it outdoors. Keep grills away from the house and other high-traffic areas. Keep kids and pets away. Use proper starter fluid in the prescribed way.

But I could add a couple myself.

A large can of gas probably does not belong anywhere near your barbecue or campfire.

If tree limbs are starting to turn black (or if metal melts by being too close), your fire is too big.

And, if the fire department comes and sprays your campfire with more than one fire hose and then knocks it all apart with axes, you're having way too much fun with your fire.

(Former managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Mikel Kelly handles special sections, puts together the Living Here section and contributes a regular column.)