This story was inspired by chapters 2 and 3 of The Whitemail Machine, which I wrote back in 1974 when I was 9 years old.
That's what Smokey the Bear had always said. "Crush out smokes." Well, that, and "drown campfires." And "don't play with matches."
Rick Harald Dim-o-lan had no desire to break any of these rules, particularly here, today, in this campsite. The forest surrounding him could charitably be described as a desiccated tinder box; the color-coded sign he'd passed on his drive in had pegged the fire danger as "extreme" only because no higher category existed. He knew the short, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth could easily ignite any of the myriad dried leaves littering the forest floor around him. He'd tried to quit smoking three times already, but each time his ferocious nicotine craving had driven him kicking-and-screaming back into another cigarette's deadly embrace.
In fact, he'd hoped this little camping trip would help distract him from the habit. The fresh forest air, the quiet far away from traffic and machinery, the primeval beauty of the trees; he'd arrived with such high hopes of clearing his mind and his soul, only to reach into his pocket and light up yet another coffin nail less than an hour later. Well, he wouldn't let it ruin the moment. He took the smoldering stump out of his mouth, blew as much smoke out of his lungs as he could, and pulled in a deep lungful of clean air. For a few brief seconds, all was right with the world.
Then it was time to dump that cigarette butt. He found an open patch of dirt by his feet, and tossed the butt to the ground far away from any dried leaves or twigs. Then he raised his right foot to stamp out the burning embers.
And just as he started to bring his right foot down, a sudden gust of wind blew in from behind him. The still-burning cigarette butt flew out and forward, tumbling madly through the air. For a second or two, Rick stared in dazed "What's going on?" confusion — then when it finally registered and he caught sight of where the cigarette butt was flying, he gasped in horror.
The cigarette fell back to earth a few paces ahead, right on top of a dry leaf.
Rick dashed toward the leaf, but it was too late. The leaf had already caught fire. He stamped madly on the leaf in desperation, trying to put the fire out, but by then the burning leaf fragments had already ignited other dry leaves lying next to them. Within seconds, the whole spiralling conflagration was completely out of his control. Twigs went up, then bigger branches, and finally the flames began to consume their first trees.
'Get out of here!' a corner of his mind screamed. It was all he could do to turn tail and run from the blaze like a panicked animal.
He stopped to catch his breath a minute later. By now he'd calmed down enough to look back at the fire. The flames were far enough away so as not to be an immediate danger, but they had certainly grown a lot bigger. At this rate, the whole forest would eventually catch fire.
He took the cell phone from his pocket and dialed 9-1-1.
"Nine one one," a lady's voice answered. "What's your emergency?"
"I need to report a forest fire," Rick said.
"Understood," the woman replied. "Are you near the fire right now?"
"Yes," Rick said.
"Do I have your permission to get your location from your phone's GPS?"
"Um, sure!" Rick nodded. It was silly to nod; she couldn't see him from her end. But habits were habits. "Do you need me to launch Maps?"
"No," the lady said, "We can get your location from your phone automatically. It's coming in now. . . . Okay, we have your location. Are you in any danger yourself?"
"Oh, no, no," Rick assured her.
"All right, I'm reporting the fire to the National Interagency Fire Center. There don't appear to be any other incidents reported nearby, so you might be the first person to report this wildfire. I'll need to give them your name to list as the first reporter."
"Sure," Rick said, "It's —"
And then, Rick remembered the TV commercials. A man under arrest for a felony. The man thrown into a jail cell, saying "I didn't mean to start a fire!". An announcer saying, "If you're guilty of starting a forest fire, even accidentally, you'll pay for it."
Oh gods. What the hell would they do to him?!
"Um, actually," Rick said into the phone, "I'd rather not have my name on that report."
"We'd still like your name for our records," the lady replied.
Rick stared at his cell phone in horror, and hung up.
The phone rang on its own a few seconds later, startling him. He looked at its display; the 9-1-1 emergency service was calling him back. Terrified, he shut off the phone's power. Then he realized how stupid that was; an incoming call would be forwarded to his voicemail whether or not the phone was on. And even then, they clearly knew his phone number, and that alone would give them access to all the information in his calling plan account — his name, his social security number, and even his address, if they could get a warrant or a subpoena or something.
And what about those rumors that they could read the GPS information from your phone, even when your phone was turned off?
Oh gods. He dropped the phone and ran again. If that fire got loose and burned down anyone's house, they'd hunt him down. But maybe if it died down on its own, they wouldn't bother looking for him. He could hope, at least. He peered over his shoulder at the rising inferno, willing it to shrink and burn out, but it continued to spread and climb.
Not too far from here was a river. It was a pretty wide river; it would make a nice natural barrier that the wildfire couldn't cross. He made a beeline to the river and stopped at its near bank, then turned and watched the fire again. It was still growing.
Sirens wailed in the distance. First responders. These should be wildfire fighters, summoned to the scene by his 9-1-1 call. They'd have no trouble spotting the blaze now; the flames alone should be visible for half a mile, and the black smoke plume could probably be seen from the next county. If they saw him, he'd be the number one suspect whether he'd called in the fire or not. He spotted what looked like a shallow patch in the river and waded across.
The "shallow" patch proved deceptively deep. He fell in chest-deep and started getting pushed along by the current. Now, panic set in and he instinctively dog-paddled for the far shore. He made no progress. His paddling speed barely kept up with the lateral component of the current. He shook himself back to his senses and broke into a decent swimming stroke; thankfully, he now made headway. After what felt like an eternity, he beached on the far shore. He had no idea how far downstream he'd drifted, and without his smartphone he couldn't get a GPS fix on his new location.
He stared back across the river. The flames engulfed the trees and climbed high into the air. The blaze was so large now he could feel the heat even from this distance. On those patches of road that were visible through the trees and flames, he could make out the flashing red lights of the emergency vehicles. From behind came the dull roar of airplane propellers getting louder. He looked over his shoulder; it was one of those firefighting planes that could drop loads of water or flame retardant out of a bomb bay. Uh oh — he was out in the open here, and obviously dripping wet from swimming. The pilot might see him! He trotted into some nearby trees as fast as he could, wet clothes slapping and creaking against his body.
The firefighters on the ground were probably busy digging out a fire line — an area of cleared ground too wide for the wildfire to cross. Rick remembered seeing an old Nova episode about wildfire control, in which they said the fireline had to be at least one-and-a-half times wider than the flames were tall, and only worked if there was no wind to carry the embers farther away. The air wasn't too windy, but there was certainly a light breeze, which might mean bad news. And those flames towered nearly twice as high as the tallest trees they were consuming.
And the blaze was still getting wider.
"Good lord," Rick muttered to himself. "What have I done?!"
He poked his head out from the stand of trees to get a better look, and — what the hell was THAT?!
Something whooshed by him overhead. He heard the sound of beating wings as from a helicopter, but less noisy. When he looked at where the sound had come from, he saw — a giant drone? An ultralight helicopter? What? No! It was a wooden barrel! A flying wooden barrel, about the size of an old-fashioned rain barrel, with a spinning helicopter rotor flush right against the barrel's top. There were no landing skids, no stabilizers, no tail rotor boom, none of the functional finery you expected to see on a helicopter. Just the rotor, the barrel, and . . . a pair of human legs dangling down below?
The unidentified flying object turned left, giving Rick a better view of its front. There was a seat stuck on the front of the barrel. It looked like little more than a thick wooden chair without chair legs. Someone was sitting on that seat, and the legs he'd seen dangling down belonged to this occupant. This ridiculous, tiny contraption was manned!
Though the proportions on the pilot looked wrong. He looked more like a little kid than a grown adult. Or a midget. It was hard to tell at this distance.