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What it's really like to fight a wildfire

A former firefighter offers a glimpse at the day-to-day lives of the men and women who rush into danger each summer to protect life and property

  • Oct 16, 2017
  • 1,541 words
  • 7 minutes
Photo: Aaron Williams Expand Image

Despite its attempt to leave it alone, three weeks after Nancy’s call, the Ministry sends us to what is now known as the Chelaslie River fire. 

We drive south from the town of Burns Lake, crossing François Lake on the government-run ferry. Another two hours of driving and we’ve reached a second water crossing. This one will take us to the south side of Ootsa Lake and the western flank of the fire. 

We drive onto a cable barge that used to serve the logging industry but doesn’t see much action now. Isaac, a skinny man with short, thinning hair, runs the barge. He revs up a tugboat that’s tethered to the side of the barge and then leaves it alone, letting the tugboat push the barge, which is attached to a cable spanning the lake. Once we’re moving, Isaac walks the deck of the barge with a clipboard, introducing himself to people at random and writing down their names like he’s the sole customs agent for all of this desolate land.

On the far side of the lake, a stand of dead trees sticks up in the water. The trees are a reminder that Ootsa Lake is a man-made reservoir, part of an ambitious project to supply power to an aluminum smelter three hundred kilometres to the west. In the 1940s, engineers built a series of dams and reversed the direction of an entire drainage system that at one time flowed into the Fraser River. In the making of the reservoir, the small Cheslatta First Nation was uprooted. Their village and traditional territory were drowned only a week after people were told to leave. They requested that the graves in the village be relocated, but it didn’t happen. When the water came, the coffins of their ancestors bobbed to the surface. 

This whole commute has had the aura of a medieval quest. The feeling reaches its peak when the barge ramp drops like a drawbridge and we drive off into a remote wilderness, seeking out the edge of a massive inferno. We try to get our bearings on where the fire ends, but every time we gain a new vantage point there’s a new horizon of smoky edge. The only clear message we get is how undermanned this fire is. Its fifty-thousand-hectare size (and growing) is split into two halves. To the east several unit crews are working from an established fire camp. On the western half, we’ve joined a few contract firefighters and two managers from the Ministry. The managers have been sent from the east camp seemingly as an offering—as if the presence of their red shirts alone might encourage the fire to behave. We have two dozen people with which to monitor 250 square kilometres of fire. Our presence here will have as much impact as a single car on global warming. 

We camp at an abandoned log-sorting site at the edge of Ootsa Lake. It’s a series of gravel terraces framed by alder trees. Terraced construction is often associated with fertility and the remnants of great civilizations. Not here. These terraces look more like the remnants of some long-ago apocalypse—they’re barren save for the bits of twisted steel and cables poking out from the gravel. Still, the spot is relatively flat, open and next to water. Tents are set up, firewood gathered, benches built and within an hour we have a camping spot. 

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At five in the morning I wake up and poke my head out of the tent. Ootsa Lake is calm and dark purple in the pre-dawn light. The trees in the lake look like something imprisoned. It’s cold and I decide to stay in my sleeping bag, drifting in and out of sleep until a flurry of nearby alarm clocks goes off at six. In the confines of the tent I put on as many clothes as are available before wriggling out the door with the smoothness of a birth. Once outside I hurry to put on more clothes. I eat cold breakfast cereal with the bowl in my lap, alternately warming each hand over boiling dishwater. There’s no ceremony in this breakfast, no coffee, no oatmeal for warmth, no fire inviting a few minutes of staring before we get ready. 

Our best option for beating the cold is to get to work. We set up hose on a long cat guard built before we arrived. In the distance the fire is threshing huge tracts of forest with algorithmic efficiency. The dry conditions and the fire’s aggressive behaviour at this early hour are a good indicator that this workday will be cut short. We stand around on the guard, chewing and baking in the hot sun. Later, we’re pulled back to the trucks, as there’s nothing useful we can do. My squad cooks dinner in the evening, and this will be the most anyone on the Rangers achieves today.

When we get to camp, Tabes and I wrestle out an old grader blade partially buried in the gravel. It’s rusty and caked with dirt. It will be our barbecue. We scrub it off with steel wool, clean it with cola and place it over the fire. Once we’ve prepped the rest of the dinner and the crew has returned from the fire line, we put steaks on our makeshift grill, eight at a time. 
Dan holds the after-work meeting while we grill the steaks. The crew is paying more attention to us than to Dan’s end-of- day spiel. The pressure of getting the meat right is immense. Is it too rare? Or the ultimate shame—is it too cooked? It turns out fine, and Tabes and I share a moment when it’s all done. A stern nod to each other acknowledges that our integrity as men has never been stronger. 

Eating dinner at Chelaslie Expand Image
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.


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