Old South: Earthquakes and fires

By Elton Camp

Each community was left to its own devices during emergencies.  Some they must endure.  Others could be combated.

North Alabama rock faults occasionally caused light earthquakes. “Whut’s thet, Milas?” Belle asked. Her voice trembled as she placed her hand on the eating table to steady herself. The dishes in the kitchen cabinets rattled, the floor vibrated, hens cackled and the hound dog howled. It was over within less than ten seconds.

“I reckon hit wuz a earthquake. I recollect one when I wuz jest a lettle boy. This un wuz a sight worse.”

In living memory, all had been as inconsequential as the one that day. Generations had passed since the great earthquakes of 1811-1812 that was centered in Missouri. The shaking had continued off and on for months. People near the epicenter had been forced to live out of doors to avoid being crushed.

Due to the nature of its land, North Alabama had been affected by those long-ago seismic waves. A few settlers and scattered villages of Indians lived there at the time. Had it been populated as today, moderate damage would’ve resulted. Not even oral stories of those terrible quakes had endured. The slight shaking created little concern.

“Thar will b’ earthquakes ’n divers places,” Milas paraphrased, but let it go at that.

A continual and more significant danger was fire in the woods. Crops, livestock and even houses could be destroyed. The community could expect no outside help.

Belle woke her husband just before dawn. “Milas, I smell somethin’ burnin’.”

The stench of burning woods stung their nostrils. As the sun rose, it revealed a haze of smoke throughout the area.

“Git up, boys, we’uns may half t’ fight far t’day,” Milas called out. “Make haste.”

The boys hurriedly dressed. A woods fire was a genuine emergency, though it was exciting to combat. Seldom did they have that much adventure.

Milas stepped into his yard and scanned the horizon. A wall of dense white smoke was visible to the south. The smell and thickness of the smoke intensified around his house. White ash, looking almost like flakes of snow, began to float downward all around.

“Hit’s down by th’ Taylor place. Hitch up th’ wagon ’n’ let’s git goin’.

By the time the group arrived, others also streamed in to fight fire. The only equipment was what they could improvise–pine branches heavy with green needles. The limbs made excellent tools. A few swats would extinguish several feet of the fire line as long as it was in low-lying vegetation.

The dense wooded areas couldn’t be saved. The fire quickly fed on undergrowth and jumped to the crowns of the trees. Cottontails and an occasional fox rushed by the men, oblivious to their presence because of the greater danger of the fire. The firefighters coughed and struggled to see with watery eyes.

“We can’t put hit out, boys,” called one of the older men. “Th’ wind has got hit plum out o’ control. We got t’ build a back fire.”