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The Great Fire


ISSUE:  Summer 1984

It had been one of those summers everyone wants to lay claim to; and this summer’s attraction was that of being the driest in the recent history of western Canada, which may have been true, for it hadn’t rained but once from June through September. My wife and I were living then in a cabin we were building on one of the smaller mountain ranges that crisscross themselves between the great Coastal Mountain Range and the great Rocky Mountain Range.

All summer we had been familiar with the tiny flash fires that sprang up on either side and behind us and across the wide lake from us. These fires, which principally were ignited through lightning, were docile and sometimes even extinguished themselves. They were puffs in an ashtray, and if we hadn’t known better that we were in wilderness land, we would have imagined them just campfires. It was only when the premature winds of fall began to blow that we were to understand the potential deception of these innocent fires.

Now in early October, the fluctuation in the weather amazed us. One week we had three straight days of soft wet snows, and there was a pane of ice on our water bucket each morning when we woke. The very next afternoon a chinook wind melted the snow from the mountaintops within a few hours and sailed the temperature into the sixties.

It was as if we were thrown right back into summer. At night we noticed the pernicious deep red glow of the spot fires on the mountains across the lake in exactly the same places they’d been. The light snows had only muffled and disguised the fires, sent them smoldering, snaking under the windfalls and moss.

We were in some kind of anomalous weather transition. The chinook winds had mellowed out the land again. The land was alive with creatures. The animals seemed to lose reason, seemed disorientated, unnaturally motivated. We saw a bear and a deer swim across a cove side by side, almost together.

The temperature remained unseasonably high, even after the chinook winds passed through the land and were replaced by strong, even, steady winds blowing up the lake from the south.

It was late one afternoon. Jane and I were sitting on the rock beach with our sugarless tea, just staring and waiting for something. The loons had all disappeared. We were just sitting together looking across the lake when it struck us that the sky downlake was far too dark for that time of day, and there was a high wind curving over the tops of the trees. Down the lake, the sky over the treetops was sort of a haze, as though a tremendous mass of insects, something alive, was moving in our direction, and then above this gray cloud, the sky cleared again to its natural color. There was just the layer of something alive swarming over the treetops with the wind that couldn’t be ignored.

Neither of us said very much, and it wasn’t as though we had been expecting something or someone, so now that it was here any comment on it would have seemed too noticeable. It was simply too much in scope to say anything about, but my wife and I knew simultaneously that we were in for some kind of night incredibly difficult for us to imagine.

We sat on the beach waiting for the fire. What worried me was the smoke. The lake was a mile wide, and I couldn’t imagine the fire jumping it. It was just the smoke. We could always escape the fire by taking our boat into the middle of the lake, but to go downlake would put us into the worst of the smoke, and there was no answer in going the other way, as the lake ended several miles behind us.

I was thinking out these options, and Jane was very quiet. In the suspension we began to hear the fire. We couldn’t see it yet, but there was a persistent hum in the air, not a roar, not an unfriendly sound, only an enveloping consistency. After that the sky darkened rapidly. Then we realized why we hadn’t been able to see it. The fire was coming up the other side of a mountain, and in the new darkness we saw the first orange flashes in the treetops. It must have been 15 or 20 miles away, gathering energy as it began to crest the last mountain before there would be a long, scooped-out stretch of constant hills and bluffs and dense timber.

The wind was such that the fire was simply crowning the treetops, taking several hundred yards, and acres of trees a leap. The rest of the trees, from the tops down, would burn out secondarily, in leisure, after this first disastrous wedge of flame had passed and done its part.

Now that we knew what it was, we went into the cabin and brought out a blanket to lie on the beach, to watch the fire. When we returned, it was already halfway down this side of the mountain, and the sky above was a magnificent and wicked dome of shimmering red and orange.

We sat engaged in the feature. There’s nothing else it could be called, just one of those rare times in life when you are entirely committed to a situation emotionally and physically. Maybe it was analogous to the position you find yourself in when watching a movie. You are restricted in a dark building with the screen bright and dominating before you, and there’s nothing you can do but watch it. It was this way with the fire, except for the physical part. We weren’t so sure about that. We didn’t believe what we were getting ready to see.

We compared our reactions sufficiently to put us almost at odds but stopped in time to still be able to talk about it. Jane had somehow involved herself very personally with the fire, and it really hurt her to imagine the waste we would see the next day when it would be light. It wasn’t as hard on me, and understanding that there was nothing at all that could stop it, I found myself able to take it for what it was, a splendid, if misunderstood, adventure, which besides, was very beautiful to watch.

But, for my wife, it was a very difficult thing to respond to, a sort of complicated punishment for her, I imagined, and I couldn’t break her out of it. It seemed to call upon some kind of feeling within her that she couldn’t quite locate, and it worried me to see her upset.

The fire raced on before the wind, flying down the mountainside, the roar, the flames jumping seven and eight times as high as the trees they were burning up. Rolling, colossal billows of smoke wiped out that whole part of the night sky, the billows rolling round and round, climbing, turning black, then red, then yellow.

The fire broke into ragged open stride when it reached the cupped-out flatland between the mountains. It crowned the trees as though twigs, flashing through the treetops, and it was beyond our imaginations, and probably for the good of both of us, though it was miles away across the lake, the sound of its rush got to be above conversation.

Most of all there was an obsessive cracking, popping, tree trunks splitting apart, exploding in the heat before the flames even reached them. The trees exploded like cannon shots. Then beyond this, in sort of a background, there was the constant crackling of the burning evergreen needles, millions of newspapers being crumpled beside your ear.

Somewhere in the path of the fire was the logging camp and the heat blasts preceding the main body of the fire sucked the roofs off the camp buildings, sailing the shingles at various diagonals into the torrid uplifting air, and we feared some of them blew across the lake to start other fires on our side. When the fire itself reached the logging camp and maintenance sheds with the drums of gasoline and diesel fuel, the skyline just exploded in balls of orange flame and black smoke.

But the sensation that was constant and pervading all this was the smell of burning fir, spruce, hemlock, and balsam needles. It was a very sweet smell, sickening. It smelled like hot grapefruit juice or grape juice. It coated our nostrils. Something ridiculous came into the back of my mind about communion, when you have tasted just enough grape juice to whet your thirst, so that when church is finally over you want to run out and buy a whole bottle and drink it all at once.

All night long the fire blazed, burning up the other side of the lake. By around midnight it had reached a point straight across the lake from us, and we could see into it very well. The fire was destroying everything we could see, high and low. We didn’t even try to think what was happening to the game. We wouldn’t have been shocked if the very mountains had melted and slid into the lake.

Everything we could see from our cabin was on fire, burning crisp, charring black. The next morning there would be nothing but desolate patches of tall burnt poles—all the needles and limbs gone. It was tragic.

The great fire burned at various speeds, according to the availability of the timber. We could see it slow somewhat to spread around the edges of rock slides at the bottom of steep valleys, and then there would be a hollow boom as it reignited in complete assimilation upon devouring a fresh patch of green trees.

Sometimes, in cresting the top of a steep bluff, it would rear up exuberantly, animal-fashion, before throwing itself down the other side. We watched it in different attitudes, and before dawn it had burned out of our sight over the last mountain uplake.

After the fire got past us on the other side of the lake, and probably because the wind seemed to have gone with it, we found that we could talk above it again, and we lay on our blanket exhausted, ravaged of any emotion.

Jane lay on her stomach, arms folded beneath her head, her face turned away from me in the direction the fire had gone. I couldn’t tell if she was crying.

When we had come to Canada to build our cabin, we had been in a position in our lives so that we could move from one place to another fairly easily without becoming too much involved and without leaving too much of ourselves behind. But the subjective isolation of the mountains and our participation in work and love had changed us.

We lay on the beach wondering what there would be left across the lake to look at when it would be daylight. Jane and I couldn’t even imagine that this thing had happened to us during the night, and we had our minds on all this when we thought we heard voices out on the lake. Then we heard some noise accompanying the voices, hollow knocking sounds that are only made by pieces of equipment being bounced around in the bottom of a boat.

In the thin light of dawn we could just make out a large dark boat looming in the layers of smoke. We understood what the men were yelling to us this time.

We’ll never forget the next words: “GET OUT in a HURRY—the fire’s RIGHT BEHIND YOU on the hill . . .go to that island—you might be safe there.”

There were two men aboard the huge black Forestry tug. They said the fire had jumped the lake and had us trapped in a semicircle.

We just looked at them.

Something was wrong in hearing other human voices, and we couldn’t get very concerned about whatever they would have said. We didn’t believe them.

With no feeling left in us, like a couple of ghosts, we went into the cabin and filled up our boat with what we least wanted burned up. We couldn’t take the cabin with us. Next to that, all we cared about was the box of our wedding photos and a camera with pictures in it.

We got these and a carton of tins and a rifle. We put them deliberately into our boat and pushed out into the lake through the furrows of burnt needles washing along the shoreline. We rowed out and held the boat fifty yards off shore and looked back at the cabin. On both sides and behind the cabin was lots of dry tinder, long strips of evergreen bark we had peeled off the logs with drawknives before putting them in place. Farther behind the cabin clearing there was a steep rock bluff, and beyond that the land rose in gentle swells until finally there was a mountain. We kept looking into the dark smoky slope of the mountain and could only see several isolated fires burning calmly out of the wind.

That was all we could see. The alarm must have been exaggerated. These were small fires we could put out ourselves if they got close, as the wind had all gone with the big fire.

We just stood in the boat, looking at the cabin and trying to recover. The cabin was safe and positive. We couldn’t understand what had changed inside us. We should have been grateful for the survival of our cabin, because at that place in our lives nothing else was so significant. There must have been something in our realization that the cabin could have been destroyed that we were unable to understand; but this probably was not it.

We had learned something from the fire, instead, incomprehensible to us then, that now we seem to understand. We think we understand it in terms of what we have discovered about the way life seems to have been determined to be lived. But in that section of our lives it was too close upon us for us to know how to define it.

My wife and I drifted in our boat among the lines of smoke on the lake trying to figure out what was different. We didn’t know what it was, and probably it was possible that we could have known; but whatever this new knowledge was, I think we understood enough about it to see that there was something in it quite sad, that we could have done without.

I don’t believe either of us ever put it into words, but we both knew it was time to leave Canada. I can’t even recall being particularly sad. I just know that leaving affected Jane a lot more poignantly. But then I never receive the actual impact of things until the shock has long since passed.

We drifted in the boat until we were out of sight of the cabin. I watched Jane standing in the bow in the solemn light of dawn, the breeze wisping the smoke around her. Then I started the motor and we went to the island out in the lake.

We camped high, dry, and safe for three days on the island in the middle of the lake until the smoke had cleared off the land and water; and the sun came out and shone brightly and hardly a breeze moved the air, all the winds mysteriously gone with the fire.

And on the third evening, when we could see with clear definition our cabin outlined against the forest, we picked up and left the island and crossed back over the water. Early the next morning we loaded the boat and closed down the cabin and headed down the lake.

Out of the high mountains, back home in the States, Jane and I settled in, I took a good job, and we proceeded to go on with our lives, always with the understanding that when the time came we would be ready and we would go back to our cabin.

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