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Fire, Fire, Burning Bright

Fire, Fire, Burning Bright

Life on the edge in Fort Smith, NWT, where the smoke is just part of the scenery
By Sarah Pruys
May 05
From the May 2017 Issue

A smoky haze lingers in the air as dozens of fires crawl through Wood Buffalo National Park. The midnight sun bleeds through the smoke to bathe the pine trees in an orange glow as I hike down paved stretches of The Great Trail on a Saturday morning.

Every time I open the door I feel like I’m standing on the side of the campfire everyone tries to avoid. Instead of roasting marshmallows, I swing and miss at horseflies. Out across the Slave River, I can’t see the trees for the smoke. The fires haven’t reached Fort Smith. Yet.

I was prepared for the winters and the cold when I moved North—after all, I’d spent the last five years in Winnipeg. But I didn’t know about the summers and the fires. About how I wouldn’t be able to go outside without breathing in the dry, pungent air, and how I’d live life on the edge, wondering if maybe I should get renter’s insurance to protect everything my family had handed down to me over the years. Or that the fires would be all anyone would talk about during coffee breaks—extra long “because it’s summer.”

We talk about how we’re supposed to be prepared, with bottled water and a full tank of gas in the car, a bag packed and ready by the door in case we have to go “right now.” But we don’t actually make a move to do anything because do we really think something is going to happen? Probably not.

And then suddenly, Fort Mac is on fire. We come home and watch the fire swoop over the city on TV, just a national park about the size of Switzerland away. They are basically our neighbours. By the time the Alberta fire—nicknamed “The Beast”—is finally contained in Alberta, the fire season in the NWT begins to heat up. But those flames are near Yellowknife, or in other towns I have proudly learned how to pronounce, but can’t yet point to on a map: Behchokǫ̀   . L/ utselk’e. Tulita. Dettah. Délı̨nę. Still nowhere near here, I’m sure. You know where this is going.

One day, on Facebook, notices are getting shared around that we are to prepare for an evacuation and that we’d better pack our bags. I don’t, at first, as though it’s not cool to be over-prepared even though I always am. (I’m that person you can count on to have a full water bottle and bandaids and snacks and bug spray and sunscreen and probably, okay, most definitely, a blanket, even though its 32 C outside.)

My true self comes through and I dig out my duffel bag and fill it up. After it’s packed, I have a moment of clarity (somehow, amidst all the smoke) wherein I realize that I really don’t need a whole lot. Sure, my things are important, but if I had to leave it all I would survive. They’re just things. Some clothes, my cat, my camera and my car and I’m set, ready for the fire that’s now just five kilometers down the road and being propelled towards us by 16km/h winds that could change at any moment. As helicopters and waterbombers dip and duck overhead, we refresh our glowing screens and wait for the next update.

And it comes: The fire is out. From down the road, people with authority bring back stories of how the fire has morphed into a soggy and smouldering puddle. They tell of how walleye and whitefish, scooped up from the river by waterbombers, now lay cooked and crispy along the fire line. Perhaps, they are skewered on charred trees—haunting Christmas decorations in July. 

It was a close call, and thankfully it wasn’t us on the news this time. But every year, as spring turns to summer, we will again wonder and worry.

We know how quickly sparks can fly and winds can change. We know that at some point the forest needs to burn.