On Wednesday at midday, I entered the brooder in the chick barn to stoke the coal fire as I've done many times this past week. The first step in the process is to clean out an ashtray at the bottom of the stove, transferring the ash to a metal bucket using a small shovel.
In order to get more ash to fall down into the tray, the stove is equipped with a tiny lever on its side that operates a grate. The more your turn the lever, the more ash falls down through the grate. Turn the lever too much, and you start to get hot coals in your ash.
Well, I turned the lever too much.
As I removed the iron plate at the base of the stove that holds back the ash, a significant heap of orange coals poured out onto the floor. (Now consider, the floor of the brooder was covered in dry wood shavings that had been cooking at 95 degrees for the past week.) Aware of the danger, I moved quickly to shovel up the hot coals and scoop them back into the tray. My performance was less than perfect, because in my scooping I managed to scatter a number of the coals further from the stove and onto a greater quantity of the shavings.
I watched with increasing apprehension as the wood shavings alighted and started to burn. My response was I think sensible -- to stomp on the flames with my boots. Incredibly, this didn't do the trick. If anything, my stomping seemed to spread the growing fire to whole new areas. I speculate now that perhaps hot coals or burning wood shavings became stuck in the engineered crevices of my Vibram boot soles. I don't know. But the fire was growing.
My next attempt at regulation was to create a fire line of sorts. Using the toe of my boot, I traced a circle in the wood shavings around each hot spot, thinking to rob the fire of fuel. This didn't work at all, and after another 30 seconds of firefighting my blaze was beginning to look like a real threat. All the chicks on the near side of the brooder chirped in horror and ran to the farthest corner, huddling there with expressions of great concern.
At about this point I believe I arrived at the conclusion that I needed either help or water, maybe both. Everything seemed to be happening very quickly now, but here's my best recollection of the exciting conclusion (I'm throwing in a "best recollection" caveat because I know from my reporting experience that participants in stressful events often make poor eyewitnesses):
I ran out of the brooder to the adjacent room in the barn and then out of the door. I called out to the nearest person I saw, which happened to be one of the young ladies who works on the farm. I told her something about finding Jim and telling him I needed help with a fire. (Farmer Jim had been nearby when I entered the brooder, and he's the type of guy who would know exactly how to best squelch the situation.)
Having delivered my important message, I ran back into the barn, located the nearest bucket, and started filling it with water from a faucet located, thankfully, right next to the doorway. I hauled the water back to the fire – I was shocked to find the flames had spread exponentially during my short absence -- and tried my best to deliver a well-aimed splash. The water helped, but I didn't have nearly enough of it, and the fire started to regrow almost at once.
In the meantime, no firemen came running to my rescue. I must have somehow bungled my initial communication for help, so I tried again. As I ran to the barn door for the second time, I found a miscellaneous farm visitor walking past the barn. I sputtered something terse, like "Need help, bring water," and then I turned my attention back to the faucet and a hose lying right next to it on the ground. I fumbled with the hose connector for about 10 seconds as I tried to thread it onto the faucet head in the wrong direction.
Frustrated, I tossed the hose aside and opted instead to fight on using bucket power. It was at about this time that the shadow of Farmer Rob at last appeared in the doorway. He took over the job of assembling the hose as I returned to the scene of the fire with my second bucket of water. As I unloaded it toward the flames (they now covered more than half the floor) some of the water hit the hot stove and sent steam hissing through the air, adding to the apocalyptic dynamic in the small, hot, dark, smoky room.
Moments behind me, Rob entered the brooder with a working hose. He seemed calm in his movements, perhaps even nonchalant. He aimed the hose brooderward and before long the fire was retreating and then defeated.
No chicks died during The Great Brooder Fire of 2008. But let this stand as a cautionary tale to all you out there who enjoy using coal stoves with bottom-emptying ashtrays in rooms whose floors are blanketed in inflammable wood shavings.