Spring Fires

Nothing like the fresh smell of napalm in the morning.
Nothing like the fresh smell of napalm in the morning.

Spring is marked by many unfavorable natural occurrences in Mongolia, such as high winds, dust storms, and perpetual sandstorms in the Gobi. One man-made disaster happens quite frequently: fires. They aren’t accidents or anything of the such. They are controlled burns. Sometimes.

One March morning I woke up and noticed my apartment smelling of smoke. I looked out my window to see that there was smoking wafting in from the direction of my school. Another dumpster fire, perhaps? I did see the neighborhood drunk waddling around with kindling. I continued my morning routine until I saw one of the city workers, replete with orange vest and camo hoodie, carrying a flaming bag on the end of a rake, purposely setting fires. The dead grass was to be burned, I suppose, and the small gardens of dried grass, wedged up against the apartment building, were set ablaze. The woman left the fires largely unattended. I watched carefully to make sure my building didn’t go up in smoke.

My guess is that Mongolians have different attitudes about fires. Coming from Florida, fires are considered serious business. Same for California, where I was born. It’s interesting to see Mongolians walk by fires without much concern. I remember when I was at dinner with a friend last year. I was facing the window and she was facing inward. I noticed two boys playing with matches (always a good sign). They set the grass on fire, panicked, and fled the scene. Throughout the course of our meal, I nervously glanced at the spreading fire, checking to see if anyone else cared that there was a blaze climbing up to an apartment building. No one seem rattled. Once, a waiter gave an indifferent glace out the window before returning to the kitchen.

I’m still unsure if this is a safe or effective way to clear out the dead grass left behind from winter. I’m no fire safety expert, but you can bet your tugruk that come Spring, at least my city will be black and the skies smelling of scorched earth.

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