Fire towering 15 metres high and rising. Unimaginable heat, hurricane-like wind, sparks and choking smoke cut off escape in three directions. If the fire jumps the highway, your last escape route will be severed. You have to leave your home and belongs to hellish destruction if you have any hope of saving yourself and family.
Can there be anything worse than the uncontrollable forest fires roaring through parts of British Columbia and Alberta? Residents have fled by the thousands. Homes, businesses, livestock and farm buildings are consumed. Luckily there have been no human lives lost as of this writing. Thousands of hectares are charred, and thousands of brave firefighters battle on despite exhaustion. Hot, dry weather has already made the summer of 2003 western Canada’s worst fire season in 50 years, and it shows every sign of continuing.
Mining communities have seen their share of forest fires. The nickel mines, mill and smelter at Thompson, Man., are threatened by a 40,000-hectare inferno as I write. History buffs will recall the murderous fires that devastated the Porcupine gold camp in Northern Ontario in 1911. What these and all the fires in between have in common is that forests cover much of the remote areas of Canada, and economic mineral deposits are found in those same remote areas.
Despite the fierce and terrible reality of raging forest fires, they are part of the natural cycle of renewal. I was privileged to witness such a rebirth a year after devastating fires roared through Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Most of the park lies in the southwestern corner of Wyoming, and I have family in Idaho about a two- or three-hour drive away. My brothers, their significant others, my husband, and I spent two days in the park in 1989. We saw hillside stands of trees obliterated by fire, but other hills had only patchy stands of blacked stumps as the fire jumped from place to place. Everywhere in the blacked ruin of the forest floor the lushest green grass, prettiest wildflowers and lodgepole pine seedlings were poking up in abundance. In fact, lodgepole pine seeds will only germinate after exposure to the intense heat of a fire. It’s all part of the natural cycle.
Anyone who builds, works or plays in the woods knows forest fires are a possibility. But that’s no reason not to enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in this country. Forest fires can never be completely prevented, but proper forest management can reduce the risks. Preparation and training can reduce the costs. And with a little bit of luck, the weather will co-operate to slow the spread of destructive fires.