Alzheimer’s Anecdotes, Chapter 16: The Burn Barrel Flame Thrower


Burn Barrel? Flame thrower? Hey, with Alzheimer’s disease progressing and my wife having a lifetime habit of doing something unbelievable with fire on occasion anyway, it wasn’t even that surprising.

Okay, I admit it. I’m lying through my nonexistent teeth. It was a little surprising, bordering on startling. Pam has been burning trash at our off grid southern Arizona home for years without incident. It’s therapy for her, allowing her to feel useful. Besides, all it involves is using a long barreled barbecue striker to light things up after a bag of trash is deposited in the barrel. What could go wrong? Right?

Two nights ago, returning from town after getting Pam’s new will signed, battling the rather hateful Chase Bank just to get her name added to that account, and going out for supper at the Outback Steak House, we had not one but two Mojave rattlesnake sightings on our way home, both on Paloma Trail, the dirt road connecting the highway to our dirt cross street. I took a picture of the first snake by truck headlight illumination, such as it was, and have now included that as the header photo for this post.

We spoke in friendly fashion to both rattlers; if they’re not close to the house or outbuildings on our property, we don’t bother them. But it didn’t occur to me at the time that unusual venomous snake sightings are sometimes “spiritual warning symbols” for me these days. I don’t know if it’s always been that way and I just never made the connection or what, but I’ve realized it this year–and two such on one homeward jaunt does count as “unusual”. Considering what was about to happen, maybe I should have wondered about that.

The next morning (yesterday) while I was day sleeping, Pam went out to burn the trash–and no, she didn’t run into any snakes, but she did almost blow herself up.

Relax; the keyword here is “almost”, okay? She’s fine, but she apparently worried all day about how to tell me her brain had messed up that badly, as she knew better.

I know better, too. When I was eleven years of age, our neighbors blew up the two room log cabin they were renting from my father on our western Montana ranch. The fire in the wood burning cookstove had gone out while the family was shopping all day in Missoula. They returned home, and some resident genius (I was never told precisely which family member had done it) decided to use gasoline to start the fire. Except the old fire wasn’t completely out. The resulting explosion blew pieces of the cast iron stove throughout the front room, some of those pieces barely missing the baby on the couch. We saw Dad tearing out of the yard in his pickup truck, heading west. He never drove like that. The smoke pillar looked like a dark version of an atomic blast, towering above the flaming cabin. The cabin was totaled and the family lost pretty much everything material that they owned–but the baby was untouched.

Anyway, back to the Alzheimer’s story with Pam. She got the trash fire in the burn barrel going, but not well enough to suit her–and decided (although, remember, she does know better and wants that point underscored) to throw some gasoline on it. Which is never a good idea under any circumstances, but we are talking Alzheimer’s here.

So she went to our gasoline supply spot, always well stocked because of our regular use of gasoline powered generators to produce electricity for appliances that draw too much for the solar generator to handle, and selected a five gallon can that was about half full. This meant it was light enough for her to carry sixty yards back to the burn barrel…where she opened the spout and poured a healthy splash of fuel on the fire.

F-W-WOOOM-M! Immediate flare-up!

The spout had become an instant flame thrower, heating the entire container and blowing a foot-long flame from the spout. The entire can could blow at any second.

At that point, the wise thing to do would have been to drop the can and get the heck away from there. We have a bare-earth clear space of at least thirty feet in any direction from that burn barrel, atmospheric humidity is still running at 56% as the rainy months tail off, and starting a wildfire would have been unlikely. But the last thing on Earth she wanted to do was to roust me out of bed with the explanation that she had done something stupid with fire. Again.

So what did she do next?

Nothing brings the best out in Pam like a life and death crisis. She will often become a basket case later, but not when the chips are down. She had to stop the fire…and she did. By running around, grabbing a more or less flat rock, and smothering the spouting flame with the flattest surface she could find on the stone. Holding the rock against the flaming spout with her two arthritic bare hands.

It worked.

By the time the flame thrower was once again reduced to being a mere gas can, the spout had “unscrewed” itself from the threads (due to the heat) and sat cocked atop the can, barely on there at all. Or had she first tried unscrewing the spout to separate the flames from the fuel supply before giving that up as a bad idea? Understandably, she has no memory of doing that, but it’s possible she blocked it. In any event, that move could very easily have produced a much larger secondary explosion that might have set her on fire in the process, eh?

The entire plastic five gallon can, still nearly half full, was hot to the touch. Additionally, it was covered in soot, especially on one side, clear evidence that something spooky had happened involving that particular can.

Amazingly, though I’ve seen this before when Pam had to fight fire (we were literally surrounded by a wildfire at our off grid home in the Montana mountains in 1999), there was not a mark of any sort on Pam herself. Not even on her clothing. Not a burn, not a blister, not even a single speck of soot.

But she suffered for the rest of the day nonetheless, trying to work up her courage.

“How am I going to tell Fred?” She asked Allen, our part time hired hand, her close friend and, when she needs one, her confidant. It’s not that I would be mean to her, but I am The Husband. If I’d been the one to make a mistake like that, I wouldn’t want to tell The Wife about it, either. (I would, but I wouldn’t want to.)

Allen figured she should just up and tell me, but he’s also wise enough to know that it needed to come from her spilling the beans, not him ratting her out.

This all came to light after supper this evening. I went outside, armed with a flashlight, telling Allen (who had helped Pam cook supper) and Pam, “I’m going to shut down the generator (which had been needed to power the microwave oven) and top off the gas.”

She knew then that I would find the sooty gas can and ask questions, which I did…and with me playing Mr. Detective in their faces, Allen was finally able to get Pam to talk to me.

“You’re okay?” I asked.

“I know better!” She replied. “Believe me, it won’t happen again!”

And it probably won’t. Not for some years, anyway. Near disaster is usually a really helpful reminder for Pam, Alzheimer’s or no Alzheimer’s. Pam still has free run of the burn barrel. She’s just been advised that instead of asking why “her” smaller two gallon gas can was empty, she should just stay the heck away form the gasoline supply, period. My wife can still handle a barbecue striker, but we’re instituting a strict NGHBP policy (No Gasoline Handling By Pam) here at the Border Fort.

After all, she knows better.

7 thoughts on “Alzheimer’s Anecdotes, Chapter 16: The Burn Barrel Flame Thrower

  1. Glad that she made it through unscathed physically. Too bad it affected her psychically. Ingenious of her to use a rock to smother the fire in the gas can. I am not sure I would have thought of that one.
    Dennis was burning trash several years ago and told Katy to run grab allthe trash out of the wastebaskets. She grabbed the bag out of my desk bin and ran it out and he threw it in. Immediately it exploded. Katy had seen the butane can sitting on the top, but did not know about it being explosive, at that time. She was only 8, and we had not burned trash much. He scorched the hair on his face and head, but no other damage. He was really mad at me when I came home.
    I kept it on top to remind me not to throw it in the fire. I would have popped it into the non-burn bag before I left the house with it. I was usually the only one to take that bag out. After that, no one would burn my trash without going through it.

  2. Very glad nothing happened to Pam, Ghost. Gasoline is very sneaky and you often don’t get a second chance to make a mistake. Have I ever thrown gasoline at a fire… once, to burn a dead animal. No fun.
    An interesting science experiment that makes me realize the danger I was in is one I did with science students: a huge plastic water bottle (the kind for coolers). You put a little rubbing alcohol in, swisgh it around and empty the bottle. Put it on its side with the mouth pointing away from everyone and in a safe directions. We all wore goggles for this, because when I put a match to the mouth of the bottle: flame shot out for a good 5 feet! My students were impressed. Oh, kids, don’t do this at home. Don’t play with fire or inflamables at home, and definitely, never put gasoline in a fire!
    Oh, and I, too, am surprised that the rock actually put out the fire… Pam must have been very quick to smother it. 🙂

    Take care, guys…

  3. Becky: Interesting. Pam blew up a butane can, too. That happened in 1997 when we were renting space on a ranch for our small mobile home, so she managed 18 years between incidents. But she was a lot more than 8 years old when she did that, and she was using the butane powered torch to fire the fire. Again, amazingly, she was unhurt physically. I’d say she’d be better off with an all electric home like the one you have now, but she’s seen a power line worker electrified, so maybe not.
    Manny: That sounds like one very cool experiment. And yes, Pam must indeed have been very quick–as she always is when she has to be, no matter what. I read this post and these comments to her just now. She says that she did have to make micro-adjustments with the rock for a while, as little tendrils of flame would try to creep out and she’d find a way to shut those down, too.

  4. I’m so relieved that Pam wasn’t hurt. I’m sure the episode scared the bejeezus out of her, though!. It’s amazing she didn’t burn herself when using the rock to put out the fire.

  5. Pam is quite amazing like that. I do remember her getting hurt with fire one time, in 2001. I was on the road, long haul trucking. She was often home alone at our off grid home in the Montana mountains, but not infrequently she would hang out with Bobby, a Native American friend, in a nearby community. But, while Bobby was basically a good guy and a hard worker, he often neglected to set things up the way he should have before heading off to work.

    So, Pam was home alone at Bobby’s, Bobby had not split enough firewood to the proper size for the day, and Pam ended up having a burning log fall or bounce back out of the fireplace–which she caught & returned, but suffered a severe burn to the left wrist area. I returned home on my days off a few days later and was appalled at the depth of the damage. She rode with me the following month, but it was at least a week or so before I was sure she was going to survive without massive infection setting in.

    And yet, her recuperative powers are so strong (sound familiar, you readers of the Jack Hill and Treemin saga?) that today there’s not even a trace of a scar on that wrist. I have no idea how she does that.

  6. Hm. Don’t know why that would be, Roy. The email address hasn’t changed, and I have your email address in my contact list as well (which I just checked to be sure). Unless your address has changed, in which case I suppose it’s possible my email program might tag your messages as spam or something. Other than that remote possibility, I’m left scratching my head…:)

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