In Flames

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

It’s been a while since I drove downtown to visit my spot at the fountain in the courthouse square. For a long time, that was where I went to write, and to think and to just breathe. But then life got so busy, as it always seems to do. New job, new home, not enough hours in the day to accomplish a lengthy to-do list…

And so when I woke up just over a week ago to learn of the fire that had broken out overnight on Railroad Avenue, I was heartbroken. Buildings that had stood for so many decades, watching the city rise up on either side of the train tracks, had been forever altered by fire.

I’ve spent the last year learning about fire — what causes it, how to produce it and how to control it. There are textbooks and manuals, case files and evidence reports and video after video explaining the science behind heat and flames. Fire is insidious and single-minded and full of fury. But it’s also surprising, too. If I were to write a textbook of my own, mine would be a chronicle of the way fire surprises us .

Chapter 1: Fire is not a thing — it is an event.

We speak of fire as if it is a singular thing, a force with a mind of its own. But fire is more than that. It is a happening. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. No one at this point knows what the beginning of the fire at Maffia’s looked like. Time will tell, I suppose. People with far more knowledge than I have will study it and investigate and come to a conclusion. There are pictures of the middle of this fire event all over social media. In those snapshots, the sky is glowing orange and the smoke is black and hanging like a shroud for several blocks around. The end of the event was a soggy mess, with neighboring businesses losing their inventory to water damage and smoke damage. Walls collapsed. Racks of clothes lay in puddles. Soot caked everything. From beginning to end, it lasted only a couple of hours. So much damage in so little time.

Chapter 2: Everyday objects — piles of magazines, a mound of pistachios — can be considered dangerous flammable materials.

Heat can smolder. Before the first flame rises up, the heat and oxygen that mix to make that fire do a slow atomic dance. They mingle and rotate, swirling together as the temperature rises degree by degree, turning a discarded rag or a stack of newspapers into a bonfire. It’s a deadly chemistry that wreaks havoc using ordinary items we glance past a thousand times a day. What will we discover was the mundane object that started this fire? Will we ever know?

Chapter 3: A typical house/business fire doubles in size every minute.

From all reports, it didn’t take long for a spark of smoldering heat in Maffia’s restaurant to double and then double again, and on and on, until the walls themselves were sheets of heat. The closest fire station is only blocks away, and those irreplaceable firefighters were on site within minutes. But fire is lightning fast. So much damage was done in less time than it takes to walk down the sidewalk from one end of Railroad Avenue to the other. Fire does not crawl. It leaps and runs.

Chapter 5: Flames don’t cast a shadow.

Fire is light, and when light is exposed to light there is no shadow cast. If you strike a match and watch the silhouette on the wall, you will see only the straight line of the matchstick. When you open the door in the middle of the night and see flames licking the walls like red-hot tongues, the only shadow you will see is your own.

Chapter 6: Most of the time, it’s the smoke that kills you, not the flames.

Wispy and dark, smoke from a fire is filled with aldehydes, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, styrene and dioxins, as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Those are just words on a page that can’t harm anyone. It’s when you mix them together and release them into the air that they become a lethal cocktail. The only mercy is that victims become unconscious before they feel the pain that fire inflicts. 

Thankfully there were no fatalities in our downtown fire. For that, we are all grateful. There is loss — tremendous loss. The fire of July 21, 2022, was an event that has cast a shadow over so many of us who love this city.

But…

As quickly as the fire grew and spread, our neighbors stepped up just as quickly. Armed with food and prayers and support of every kind, strangers and friends crowded the streets downtown. Tables were spread with platters of food, donated and home-baked. Coolers filled with ice and water lined the sidewalk. Opelikians came, not to gawk and gossip, but to tend and care. Everyday necessities were instantly available for all who needed them. Folks who lost their livelihoods have been embraced and supported by the entire town. Donations have been made … have poured in, actually. The shadow cast by our goodwill for each other is long indeed.

The end of this fire event has yet to be written. What will a rebuilt Railroad Avenue look like and how long will it take for “normal” to return? I know this as sure as I know that Teddy Roosevelt himself rode a train down those very same railroad tracks that pass in front of where Maffia’s once stood — Opelika will rally around our own. This fire will go down in history, but so will our love for each other and for the streets and tracks and bricks that make up our city.

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