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Forest fires in the North

Wondering which way the wind blows

By Carolyn Pogue

Forest fires scare me. Perhaps Bambi, a story I loved as a child, helped me build a healthy respect for campfires. Perhaps my mother’s cigarettes — stolen from her purse and smoked behind the barn — added more fuel to this particular fire (Were those butts out?).

So while packing for our annual drive to Yellowknife last week, I kept checking the news. When we left Calgary, there were as many as 145 fires burning in the Northwest Territories.

Our habit is driving straight to High Level, Alta., about 1,000 km., passing fields that are bright yellow, with canola or summer green, with wheat or hay. Descending into valleys, we cross stunningly beautiful rivers: Chincaga, Athabasca, Peace and others. We see all that has sprung up in the oil and gas industries, too. We’re reminded of what fuels our VW, our economy and our concern that Canada needs more green energy.

It was just before the 60th parallel, marking the Northwest Territories border, when we entered the smoky areas. We stretched our legs and received the news from the friendly locals at the welcome centre. She said that Kakisa residents were still not home after evacuation and advised that the highway to Yellowknife may close anytime.

Forest fires are all about two things: fuel and wind. The forest was tinder dry, with leaves, cones and needles underfoot crunching loudly. The North is semi-arid, not filled with giant snow drifts all year as southerners sometimes suspect. Spring rains have been more than scarce this year, making for worried locals. The wind is the other matter. Whether we got through to Yellowknife entirely depended on the wind.

We wondered if climate change was also a factor. From the Arctic coast to Yellowknife, temperatures have been above average and there has been less precipitation. Because Boreal forests help regulate our climate, would serious damage to it raise temperatures even higher? (Globe and Mail science reporter Ivan Semeniuk makes this connection in his recent piece, "What wildfires in the Northwest Territories say about climate change.")

After our picnic by the Decho River and a visit to the memorial to children lost at the Residential School in Fort Providence, we headed out. The smoke thickened.

Forty-five minutes down the road, we were stopped. “Wait a while,” the Department of Transport employee said, “the road could reopen if the wind shifts.” He told us of three bears that had just fled across the road. We backtracked to a roadside turnout and began a four-hour wait. Others joined us, hoping that a pilot car could take us through. A rig carrying jet fuel, a guy more than a little anxious to see his girl friend, three Transport employees. We waited together, marooned, exchanging small talk and stories of other delays: floods in Alberta, landslides in British Columbia. I found a huge patch of strawberries and picked for an hour.

The fire then jumped the road. It was horrifying to see red and orange flaming sheets devouring trees, grasses and bushes, both raging and roaring. It was loud. And I wanted to weep.

We returned to Fort Providence, to one of the last rooms at The Snow Shoe Inn, which overlooks the Decho. If you put a canoe in this river, you’ll eventually see the Arctic Ocean. After dinner, I walked down to the shore and prayed for land, animals, people losing homes, fish camps and traplines.

Saturday morning, we were piloted through, past smoldering devastation — what looked to be a war zone. That “window,” we learned, lasted but two hours because the road has been closed since. Last night, a wild wind woke me up at 4:00 am. Today, the fire is 100 km closer to us. And we wonder which way the wind will blow.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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