Fire On the Steppe

“Justin!”
Over the howl of the wind I could hear Tuya calling from behind me.
“Come here, hurry!”
I struggled to hold the camera steady, to take one more picture. I could taste the grit of sand and dirt on my tongue. The acrid smoke filled my nostrils. It stung my eyes and burned my throat. The wind had changed again. Blowing north. Sending it hurdling forward on a collision course with Omnodelger. Someone do something! I pleaded in my head.
“Justin! Quickly!”
I turned and ran back to where Tuya was standing, struggling to close the gate against the wind. Inside the small enclosure housed the towns meteorological instruments. Having taken the pictures like she instructed me to, I rushed to her side to help close the gate.
“This happens sometimes” she said. “Its very windy, its moving very fast,” she exclaimed as the gate clanged shut.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too,” was all I could answer.

Earlier that morning

Spring in Mongolia is windy, very windy. Occasionally this wind manifests itself in the form of dust storms or in the Gobi Desert, sandstorms. Flying dirt, sand, grit, and pebbles propelling themselves into your body and face is unpleasant. Thats why I was content to let the wind rock my ger while I hunkered inside and worked on making exams one Saturday morning. It was around eleven o’clock when I decided to brave the gusts for a much needed bathroom break. I made it several strides before I stopped dead in my tracks in the center of my yard. The “eternal blue sky” was marred by an enormous plume of smoke. It poured upwards, ominously billowing out, its clouds rolling and expanding, threatening to blotch out the sun. My bathroom break now forgotten I ran over to the fence that separates my hashaa and climbed onto it to get a better look. The steppe was alight. The tall grasses burning wildly outwards in a dark menacing circle. There was no one else around to express my concerns to, the streets were quiet save for the roaring wind. I jumped down from my perch and scurried over to Dakraa’s. Tried the door. Locked. Since living in Mongolia I’ve grown accustomed to tolerating things that seem out of the ordinary or dangerous. But I needed to know if this was normal. Banging on the door fruitlessly, I realized there was no one home.

Ducking back inside my ger I grabbed up my phone and texted Tuya asking what was going on. As I attempted to make myself lunch waiting for a reply I tried justifying the fire in my head. Mongolians are always burning trash, maybe its Super Trash Day? I can’t be the only one to have noticed it. It must be controlled? Right? A familiar sound tore through the air, giving me my answer.

Air raid sirens.

Blaring somewhere from my towns center, they wailed their warning of imminent danger. The knife I was holding landed with a clang onto the cutting board as I burst back out into daylight and climbed back atop my perch. The sight I was met with shocked me. The wind had accelerated the fire at an alarming rate. In the fifteen or so minutes since I had been inside, the fire had spread, defining the topography of the steppe with blackened grass and scorched earth. From my high and distant position I could actually see it moving. The ring turning the steppe black, crawling towards Omnodelger. As I gaped, my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Tuya. After translating I laughed nervously aloud at her reply, reading her message only added to the drama.  “A mighty conflagration is coming, stay there, I’m coming.” When Tuya finally arrived some minutes later, she told me that the soum’s men would go out to fight the fire. I clutched for my jacket and stood up asking where I could meet them. “No, she said, I need your help,” shaking her head. “Please watch Misheel, I must go to work and check the wind.”

So I sat on the floor of my ger with six year old Misheel and we played shagai. She hummed and giggled to herself as she played, the air raid sirens continued to blare their warning outside. I put on a smile and tried not to let on my concerns. Ten minutes later Tuya was back with her mother. “Justin, please bring your camera and come to work with me, I need your help.” So we left Misheel with her mother and began walking briskly towards the edge of town. “If it gets close we will go to my mother’s home in the countryside” she said as we reached the tiny fenced in area holding all of the Soviet hand-me-down weather predicting elements. We were closer to it now, smoke billowed and poured over the gentle hills of the steppe. The wind whipped wisps of grey and black through the air. It looked apocalyptic. She instructed me to take as many pictures as I could while she read her instruments. I jogged out several paces closer to the blaze and began snapping away.   How would they put a stop to it? Omnodelger has no fire department, no trucks, not even a consistent water supply.  

Minutes later we were headed back towards my ger.  Tuya had me e-mail her wind statistics and the pictures I took to a meteorologist in the closest town to the south.  “A warning,” she said sternly.  I took it as it served as a way for them to be prepared if it started heading in their direction.  To this day I still don’t know how the blaze was stopped.   Later Bolormaa and Munkhkherlen came bursting into my ger coughing and exhausted.  They too had been called to combat the fire.  I gave them tea and made soup, feeling guilty that my role was so minor in assisting our tiny town.  They explained that Omnodelger was safe now, the fire was under control and nothing was damaged save for a garbage dump just outside of town.  The fire, they said was probably started by a careless herder, tending his flock and discarding a dying cigarette.

The next morning a smoky haze could still be seen lingering over the steppe.  The dark blackened smear ending mere yards away from the closest hashaa.  I couldn’t help but reflecting that months before I was praising fire, our ability to harness it, how it warms us, fights the unforgiving cold, makes us comfortable and safe.  The scarred landscape outside of Omnodelger serves as a reminder that it has the power to take all that away.

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