When fire touches all of us... 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY REAL WORLD PHOTOGRAPHS INC / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - A firefighter battles a fire in British Columbia.
  • photo by Real World Photographs Inc / Shutterstock.com
  • A firefighter battles a fire in British Columbia.

"'Cause when we ki... iss
Ooooh, Fire"
Bruce Springsteen

OK, British Columbians, that's enough kissing. More than enough fire. Way too much smoke. Not enough — never thought I'd write these words — rain.

After spending a month on a boat, exploring the coast of northern B.C., wondering why I bothered to bring such useless items as shorts, bathing suits, and sunscreen, I thought everyone was joking about a heat wave in Whistler. Heat wave? We were wondering if summer would ever come. Oh, it made a brief appearance the day after solstice, then slithered back into its winter hole until near the end, the southern end, of the trip. Thankfully, it made a sufficient appearance to make my face look as though I'd spent a month on the water, notwithstanding the remainder of me looked like the bottom side of a halibut.

I wasn't ready to reintegrate into society. Wasn't ready for people, traffic, noise, hurry and rush. Certainly wasn't ready to wend my way through Vancouver.

Stopped in Whistler long enough to pick up a month's worth of mail — a task becoming more and more irrelevant — and decided to gently rejoin society on the shores of the tranquil waters of Sulfuric Lake. Smilin' Dog Manor, here I come.

I can only imagine the waters were tranquil. I couldn't see them through the smoky haze. I knew there was a big fire burning in Ashcroft but the prevailing winds had been blowing the smoke a different direction. In the time it took to drive to the south Cariboo, the winds has shifted, the air had turned brown, a fine layer of ash had gathered on my deck and the sun had become a dimmed, orange float in the sky. Oh well, summer in B.C. is fire season. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

But this was only the second week of July!

There was no danger the Ashcroft fire would spread as far north as me, little danger the acrid air posed more than an aesthetic risk.

But on the way up, I heard about the Gustafsen fire near 100 Mile House. OK, that's closer... but not too close. Besides, there was work to do after being away for a month, wilderness to beat back, deer to chase out of the fallow garden beds, warm-enough water to wash away the sweat of the day, very few people and no hectic schedule. Perfect.

The summer of 2003, one of my first at the Dog, was nearly perfect. There were endless days of sunny skies, warm temps and enough back-breaking work to make a late afternoon-pre cocktail hour swim/bath both refreshing and necessary. Drying off laying in the sun on the dock became a ritual cum religious experience.

On July 30, in mid ritual, a chill came over me. I opened my eyes, looked up and saw an enormous thunderhead blocking the sun, one of the first clouds I'd seen all summer. There were more thunderheads ringing the horizon, thunder starting to thunder and lightning starting to flash. Shortly after the first flash, sirens began to wail.

I was a reluctant volunteer fireman/person. I suspected my greatest contribution to firefighting would be to stay out of the way of people who knew something about what they were doing. But duty called; I dressed and biked to the fire hall about one minute away, put on hot fireguy clothes and rushed off to extinguish a small brush fire two kilometres away. No problem; lots of sweat.

"Lord, I'm a fool for a cigarette."

—Sidney Bailey/J.B. Lenoir/Jim Dickinson

It was dusk when I returned and jumped in the lake to cool down. That's when I noticed the red glow in the sky and realized I was looking southeast, not west towards the sunset colour show. That was the start of the McLure-Barriere fire. An errant cigarette torched over 26,000 hectares, destroyed 72 homes, nine businesses — including the biggest employer in the area — and displaced 3,800 people. The person sucking on the cigarette prior to the conflagration was eventually fined $3,000.

At this moment, no one knows what started the Gustafsen fire. But the day after we arrived, I wasn't thinking about that. The wind had shifted and for several blissful hours, smoke from Ashcroft was blown away, the sky was blue again, the air smelled like air and livin' was easy.

Then it got smoky again. This time bourne on wind from the northwest. Gustafsen smoke. Over the next few hours the air grew noticeably more opaque and acrid. We closed doors and windows and sweated. Late in the evening, people started going door-to-door in 100 Mile House telling people to get out.

The town sits 35 minutes west of Smilin' Dog. It seems like a long way by car, longer by bike and practically on a different planet from Sulfuric Lake. But it's where groceries are, lumber, liquor, the stuff of life. With the town closed down, the air not fit to breathe, roads quickly closing and the very real possibility, within the next several days, of having to drive to Alberta if I wanted to get back to Whistler, we decided to leave.

My former neighbour, an old-time Cariboo guy, used to make me help him with "fire practice." It consisted of dragging a nasty, two-stroke powered water pump and a hundred metres of fire hose down to the lake, start it up — the act of which cost me the use of a finger — and squirt water all over his roof. One day, after we'd performed this summertime ritual, he asked me if I had a bugout kit ready. I said, "Sure," not knowing what the heck he was talking about.

I asked what he had in his kit. Being a pragmatic guy, he said he had two gallons of homemade wine, several snacks with best before dates a decade away, clean underwear and a few other essentials.

"What's in yours?" He asked.

"House insurance policy and credit card," I answered.

Same kit this year. Same hope that the credit card is the only thing I ever have use. At least I know it works.

Neighbours stubborn enough to stick around inform me Smilin' Dog is now under alert. And so it goes. Hope you understand if I wallop you with a two-by-four if I see you smoking irresponsibly.

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