Lazy Sunday lunchtime.
We ate a late brekky so we were still just lolling around come the official 12:00 must-eat-lunch-now chime.
I had pulled the massive bucket-shaped iceblock out of the chooks water bucket and was around the front filling the watering can with more water when I looked up and saw the neighbour's wife running around the side of their house with a big roll of garden hose.
I had seen the black smoke billowing up from behind their house but you know, the good citizens of this neighbourhood haven't heard of the Kyoto Protocol and not only do we burn off regularly but we use various accelerants to boot. What better way to recycle engine oil and old kero, right?
But something just seemed a little odd here...
My neighbours aren't known for their love of running...
And that really was a lot of very black smoke....
I walked back into the house and suggested K go over and see if they needed help as the smoke was getting worse not better.
Went back round the back and filled the chooks water and commiserated with them for a bit over the cold and thanked them for continuing to lay eggs anyway and wandered around the front again and was taking off my shoes when the in-house PA kicked into action that there was a fire.
In my neighbourhood.
At my neighbour's house!
Shoes back on and I ran out to the road and watched the neighbours heads pop out their driveways one by one by many like so many meerkats.
The neighbour immediately up the road from the fire and I went over the orad together and found the neighbour directly down the hill from the fire looking panicked and racing around. The billowing black smoke was coming from the back corner of the neighbour's house and right up against (one of) her sheds.
Until now I had thought that all Japanese people were pre-programmed at birth to answer 'you ok?' with 'No problem' no matter the situation in some stiff upper lip gaman perseverance thing. I guess there's two of us in the neighbourhood at least who will tell it like it is, hey?
Anyway, we followed downhill neighbour around the side of her sheds and saw the fire.
It was a huge pile of rubble.
Imagine you had built a new house on your land and instead of paying for the (exorbitant) fees a construction company would charge to have oooohhhh three or so outbuildings demolished and carted away you just had them all bulldozed into a pile and then one winter day you decided to do something about that and started burning off. Well, it looked something like that.
A lot like that.
The bonfire was right up against a retaining wall metres from a brand new house my neighbour's son had built where some three or so sheds used to be, and the downhill neighbour's sheds.
The morning news had forecast a south wind that would mean the flames were drawn away from the houses and out toward the empty (at this time of year) fields.
All morning when the neighbours had been tending the fire the winds had gone according to plan and all was well.
So well that the fire was burning low and they came in for lunch and were having a post-lunch rest when the neighbour's wife thought she heard an odd crackling sound.
There had been about 10 minutes of really weird winds.
I had noticed it when I was out doing the chooks stuff as my hair kept blowing this way and that and getting in my eyes no matter which way I turned.
Those same winds had hyper-energised the fire and the flames had lept up and were being blown up against the downhill neighbours sheds.
Old, wooden sheds with leaves in the gutters and on the roof that were now smoking and smouldering.
We don't have a neighbourhood volunteer fire brigade anymore as it was a victim of amalgamation induced down-sizing but we do have a lot of men who were on the defunct neighbourhood firebrigade for many years. Many many years. Decades in fact.
So, before the volunteer fire brigade men responding to the village PA had even arrived the neighbours were out in their helmets and their fire brigade caps and had unrolled the big hoses from both corners of the block and had the water on high and the fire under control.
They were out inspecting a perished section of hose where a fountain of water was escaping when the k-trucks of volunteer fire fighters started to arrive from other neighbourhoods.
If this was Australia there would be a street number clearly printed in a place highly visible from the road so emergency services could find you easily and quickly.
But this being Japan and not Australia, we don't have street numbers- we don't even have street names! but rather non-sequential block numbers. A block number being the number that was allotted when land was subdivided. Land that was subdivided at the same time has sequential numbering but then there can be a big gap in numbers between neighbours. And with multiple residences on the same block sometimes sharing a block number and sometimes having their own it all gets a bit crazy. We have a separate address for the kitchen-less, bathroom-less, water-less outbuilding we use for K's doomsday supply of toilet paper, tissues and laundry soap for example. (Should you want to send him supplies directly, let me know and I'll give you the address to avoid confusion.)
So anyway, when the PA system tells the volunteer firefighters where the fire is they give the nearest landmark. And in this case that was M. Construction company 'just across the road.'
Which is true.
The block next to ours on the uphill side is M. Construction company's storehouse and heavy equipment carpark. Un-signposted and narrow witha clear view through to the veggie garden I co-farm with neighbour A, it is far less well known than M Construction company's sawmill and storage shed 100m up the hill on a corner. The very corner with the firehose connection the neighbours were springing into action to use.
You can see where this is heading right?
Yup. All of a sudden we had k-trucks pulling up with men riding Chariots of fire style on the back grinding to a halt at the sawmill and jumping out ready for action and- stopping. Peering. Craning their necks... Fire??
Meanwhile the neighbours were yelling and waving and pointing out the house with the fire. Some men jumped back in their cars and came screaming down the hill. Many more just ran the short distance leaving trucks and cars parked on both sides of the narrow road, on an intersection, effectively blocking it to through traffic.
One of my neighbours is a professional emergency services worker and he called out to me and uphill neighbour to grab some towels and wet them as the wife had burnt her face.
I ran home and grabbed a towel (without taking off my shoes- the horror!) and met the uphill neighbour in the neighbour's genkan where two volunteer firefighters and the emergency services guy were trying to calm the neighbour's wife down. (Uphill neighbour had walked into the neighbour's own bathroom and grabbed a towel from there. I am disappointed that I have lived here too long and it never occurred to me to go past the public genkan and enter the private sphere of the inner house for a towel.)
Poor neighbour's wife was in shock and shivering and incredibly embarassed at all the fuss. We had wet towels on her head and face and she wasn't allowed to remove them so it must have been really unsettling with a stream of people coming to the door and asking questions and lots of noise and movement but not being able to see what was going on around you. I really felt sorry for her.
From my seat in the genkan I saw the silver space-suited professional firefighters from the town next door (closer to us than our village's fire brigade) jog past and then more sirens and someone announced a brigade from Matsumoto had arrived. Wow, this was a lot of action for a fire that had seemed almost out with the efforts of the neighbours and the neighbourhood firehoses....
Next uniforms past the genkan were the police.
I counted four police officers.
Then the towels were removed form the neighbour's wife's face and it was deemed that while there was no blistering, it seemed she had singed her nostrils and there was some concern that she might have inhaled smoke so an ambulance was called.
The neighbour's phone was ringing hot and the uphill neighbour had been answering it and relaying messages to the wife (having a fire at your house announced over the village PA is a definite recipe for popularity!) but for some strange reason it wasn't reassuring the wife to know that every Taro, Dick and Hiro in the village was calling up to check she was OK and get the lowdown on her predicament and the emergency services neighbour firmly instructed us to let everyone go through to the answering machine.
The police came in to enquire about alternative access to the property as the ambulance couldn't get up or down the road at the moment what with two fire trucks, police cars and a whole slew of other vehicles out there. Emergency services neighbour went out and with a glance identified the offending vehicles and gave the police the names of men who would need to go and move their trucks into the spare driveways around the place immediately.
The ambulance arrived and agreed that the neighbour's wife seemed fine but was most definitely in shock and needed to be checked out at the hospital. Poor neighbour's wife was beside herself at the trouble she was causing and all the fuss and the more worked up she got the more she shook and she started coughing.
At the first coughing the ambulance officers started checking her eyes and pulse and trying to ascertain the probability of smoke inhalation. Poor neighbour was trying to explain between coughs that she has had a cold for a week and has been coughing for much longer than the hour since the fire.
The ambulance officers wanted someone to ride to the hospital with the neighbour's wife but her husband was still needed for the fire investigation, so neighbour up the hill was elected. (They are related in some indirect way I have never quite got clear) She baulked as she was in her roomwear and apron and had nothing on her, so emergency service worker neighbour threw his pocketbook at her- which of course landed in a slushy mud puddle when she fumbled it and the next second there were a scurry of people scrabbling around for cards and coins in the mud. Neighbour's wife, still unable to see with a wet towel pressed to her face insisted she couldn't possibly ride in an ambulance in her dirty work boots which reassured me more than anything else that she was definitely going to be ok and I guess the ambulance officers and I were the only ones who thought that footwear wasn't an issue as two people jumped up and went and got her spare shoes from the family entrance to the house. (Most houses here have a front entrance for the postman and visitors and a kitchen/ family entrance for the day to day comings and goings of the family.)
The ambulance was directed out of the neighbourhood with the neighbour's wife with her towel on her face and the uphill neighbour in her apron holding the emergency service worker's pocketbook and things quietened down. After a conversation with neighbour A and my downhill neighbour about the recent spate of treefelling in the neighbourhood, the resulting extra sunlight, and the surety that neighbour A's carefully (but quite severely) pruned Japanese maple would look stunning come Spring time we said goodbye and drifted back to our houses.
I consoled Meg who had been quite upset to hear the PA and open the front door to see half the neighbourhood and a fire truck outside her gate but no mummy (inside the neighbour's genkan) or daddy (out with hose on the fire). Amy wandered in from a different room complaining that Meg was crying too loud and she couldn't finish the letter she was writing. I got them both quieted down and explained what had happened and what everyone was doing out there and used it as an opportunity to reiterate our family fireplan as well. Meg was calmed and reassured.
Amy had somehow missed the whole thing and just ignored the PA to boot. Wow. Talk about being into your work, huh?
About a half hour later K got back muddy and wet and after cleaning up explained that their hadn't been a fire.
It seems the fire brigade has to classify a callout according to set criteria and fire is pretty heavy but 'patrolling a suspicious burnoff' or some such is much less so.
And, well, imagine that my neighbour is a quite well known and influential man in a number of fields in the village. And imagine that it might be quite embarrassing to have his name and fire listed together in whatever official records are kept. I'm not suggesting at all that he asked them to fudge things. I don't think he would do that. That said I don't think he would need to. I wasn't there and I didn't hear it but, this neighbourhood being what it is, I can well imagine any number of neighbours having a word in the fire brigade's fire inspector's ear about it.
So, the police get their prompt from the fire brigade. And if the fire brigade says it wasn't a fire then the police have nothing to investigate. K says the police were a little surprised it wasn't a fire they were observing but they agreed that they take their cue from the fire guys so no fire is no fire.
Apparently all emergency personnel were quite astounded at just how big a pile of rubble was out there. I didn't know this but the fire brigade doesn't go until the fire is out. Not just under control but out, kaput, dead.
So after they doused the top layer they moved it all aside and wet down the next layer. And then they realised there was even more and they moved that layer. By layer four eyebrows were definitely raised and it was strongly suggested that this 'little burnoff got out of control' should have definitely been handed over to a professional removal company to deal with.
And that was the fire we didn't have here today.