The crew eats dinner on makeshift benches in the early days of the Chelaslie River fire tour. (Photo: Aaron Williams)
We sit around the fire in the gathering smoky dark, enjoying laptop-sized servings of red meat. Yesterday we were so clean we looked like actors cast as firefighters. But after one half-assed day we look similar to the iron grill we dredged from the log dump.
The fire activity we saw from a distance yesterday ended up challenging the stretch of land we were hosing. The next morning we discover that an escape has burned into some old slash piles. Partway through the day, help arrives in the form of an old excavator jostling down the guard. In the cab is a man who’s well into his sixties and tall. He’s sitting down but still a presence. When I reach up to shake his hand, he grabs it like a bear swiping at a fish. It envelopes mine and he gives his version of a gentle squeeze. I press back but my bony fingers barely register against his hands. He introduces himself as Carl. I ask him what he does when he’s not working fires.
“Well, I’m tired, not re-tired,” he says. He tells me he owns a ranch just off the François Lake ferry dock, where he lives with “the wife.”
“You go past the white church and it’s just two driveways up.” I don’t know what he’s talking about but appreciate being spoken to like a local.
Carl owns a bunch of equipment and during fire season he contracts himself and his machinery out to the Ministry. His jeans are worn thin, as is his denim shirt. His chest hair looks like it could plane wood. I want to know more about his life, as it seems tidy and God-fearing.
“So is it just you and the wife at the ranch?” I ask. I’ve already built a vision of it—eggs for breakfast, farm work all day, maybe he watches the news with the wife in the evening.
“Yeah, it is,” he says in a satisfied tone.
The sample size is small, but people living on the south side of François Lake seem to be from a different time altogether. A time of fire lookouts, primitive machinery, a rifle behind the front seat.
We return to camp in the evening to find our tents coated in ash. There’s a patch of blue sky directly above the lake, but all around us in the middle distance, smoke rises up from the forest.
Its movement looks like the slow billowing of a theatre curtain. We’re completely alone here and it’s firefighting at its best. We’re free. No overhead, no eyes in the sky, no rules. It’s us and a massive fire.