The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Fire On The Mountain

By J. Carlton Smith © 1990

Issue: July, 1990

A very familiar verse of scripture to most of us is: "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills whence cometh my help, my help cometh from the Lord." I suppose this is why I always thought the majestic peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains rising to meet the sky in the northwest to have a spiritual meaning. I knew that God neither slumbered nor slept, but I could vision Him occasionally stopping to rest on top of one of the tallest mountains where He could survey his handiwork and keep an eye on His kingdom.

A very scary thing happened when I was young and is brought to mind from time to time. It always comes to mind when I hear the song, "Fire On The Mountains."

I have forgotten whether this happened in the fall or early spring. It was at a very dry time. Brush and forest fires were breaking out over a wide area daily. It was with dread people went out to scan the horizon each day to see if there were any fires in their area. You could see columns of smoke for a long distance. Sometimes when the wind would shift, it would cover the land with a blue haze and the smoke would dim the sun. It made people's eyes burn and their throats raw.

When a fire broke out, most of the men in that community would go to help fight the fire. This was hard and dangerous work. There was the danger of getting caught in the path of the fire if the wind grew stronger to fan it. Sometimes they would rake a space in front of the fire and set back-fires to burn back toward the main fire. If this was successful, it would keep the fire from advancing. Then they must patrol the fire lanes to see the fire didn't cross them. Once, when there was a woods fire nearby, we went to help fight it. When the fire was raked around and seemed under control, most of the people left but us and the woman the land belonged to. It grew dark and this lady lit a lantern. She patrolled the fire lines most of the night to see it did not catch up again. It was an odd and strange sight to see this lady coming through the smoke with her lantern and rake.

The weather grew drier and the fires more numerous. Then came the horrible news the mountains were burning. In the distance you could see the clouds of smoke. This was a very scary and frightening sight. What would happen if they could not put the fires out?

The mountains represented stability in our lives. They were always there. We knew they were a barrier that kept the strong winds and tornadoes that swept the plains from coming our way. We knew that our rain clouds formed in the mountains and came sweeping down the slopes to water and refresh our land. When the mountains were hidden by a curtain of rain and mist, it was time to seek shelter as the storm would soon be upon us. How we needed such a rain now to quench the fires.

Each day the air grew thicker with smoke and there was a red glow in the sky at night. Soon the fire started creeping up the mountains. After dark the red glow was visible for a long distance. People would gather at a good place to view the fires after dark.

Our farm had a high ridge that dropped off sharply as it went downhill to the Mayo River. From the end of this ridge was an excellent view of the mountains. Each evening for two or three nights, some of the neighbors would gather with us to watch the fire on the mountains.

Some of them thought it was a judgment sent upon people for their wickedness. They said it wasn't going to rain and the Judgment Day was upon the land. Sitting in the dark and watching the angry red flames devouring the mountains, we could readily believe this.

All this talk about Judgment Day would soon blend into songs about it. "On Jordan's Stormy Banks," "Going Down The Valley," "The Old Account," and "The Great Judgment Day," were some that I remember. Most people had sung these songs all their lives, but they seemed to have more significance now.

As the night grew late, fires would die down, probably because the wind had laid and moisture had increased. The next day as temperatures increased and the upward drafts began, the fires would take on increased activity. All of this probably didn't last but two or three days, but it seemed longer with all the talk about the mountains burning up.

The talk about the mountains burning up was scary to us children. We could see the mountains being consumed and falling down into piles of ashes. Would those beautiful blue mountains we saw each day burn up and fall down or if they did not, would they be black? If this happened, we wondered, how would it affect our lives. It was with great relief that we learned that rain was expected soon.

The last night the fires didn't seem as bright. It could have been that moisture had already begun to gather in the mountains, as before day a gentle rain began to fall. The rain put the forest fires out. We felt it had come as an answer to prayer. Much to our relief, when the rain stopped and the sun came out, the mountains were still there and they were a beautiful blue, not black as we feared.

We had gotten over the fright of the Judgment when we were jolted into the reality of it again one night sometime later. One of the neighbors came rushing in crying, "Lordy, Lordy, the world is on fire!" We ran outside into the night very frightened. The sky was lit up with angry waves of red coming from the north. We knew the end was near!

My mother said, "that's the Aurora Borealis." We knew it must be something awful with a name like that. The angry red tongues flickering across the sky made us think the Judgment would soon be here. Mama explained that they were like our rainbow only was the reflection of the sun shining against ice, where the rainbow was caused by the sun shining against moisture after a rain or storm.

This made us feel better as we were familiar with the rainbow and had always wanted to find the pot of gold at its end. We knew by experience that one cannot find the end of the rainbow as it is always beyond us. While we watched these waves of red coming from the north, we thought how lucky the Eskimos would be if there was a pot of gold at the end of each red wave. This experience of northern lights and fire on the mountain, I have never forgotten.