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    Thursday, July 18, 2019-9:50:21A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Canadian wildfires

WE almost cancelled our trip to the Canadian West when we heard about the wildfires.  In the end, the chance to accomplish our mission, and also confirm what we had been hearing, only strengthened our desire to go.

When you learn that seven hundred thousand acres have been annihilated by a raging fire, it’s hard for most people, me included, to envision such a thing. To help, imagine every square inch of Saipan burning out of control, then picture fifty Saipans all burning. That is just about the size of the wildfires in Alberta alone.

As we drove further north into the impact zone, we noticed many more cars moving the other direction. People fled for their lives, leaving only firefighters, my group and any residents too stubborn to flee the holocaust. At first the wildfires only revealed themselves as hazy clouds covering the roads. Actually, we smelled the fires long before we saw anything. But the further we drove the thicker the smoke grew. My wife coughed. Then my daughter said her eyes burned. My breathing grew noticeably heavier. The sun slowly turned orange, then disappeared completely. We noticed something different in the way the bugs behaved. They were more aggressive, as if irritated by the fires and intent on taking their frustrations out on us. Bees, hornets and flies dove at us mercilessly and tried their best to get inside our vehicle.

Driving through scenes of utter devastation, we noticed that not even stubble remained on the ground. Often, when fire sweeps through an area, remains of leaves and other debris litter the ground. But the heat was so intense here that nothing remained. Although we looked for them, we did not even find the carcasses of animals and bugs, as if the fire had erased their existence. I scooped up a cup full of ashes to examine later and keep as a memento of the Great Canadian Wildfires of 2019.

We neared a town and decided to stay for the night, but soon discovered that most motel rooms were occupied by firefighters. They slept three per bed because they worked in three continuous shifts. In the morning the night crew came back to the hotels and collapsed asleep while the morning shift headed for the fire line. In the evening the next shift would switch out with them. I stood in the parking lot under a snowfall of ash and watched these heroes come and go. Some drank beer while others grilled bratwurst. They all had the same determined look on their face, the same look I have seen on the faces of soldiers in war. There is a terrible job to be done and there is neither a way around it nor a way to shorten it. We must push on. Lives depend on us. It is gritty determination, and they embody everything that is still good in mankind.

Besides the men and women who fight fires, out here the main tools are bulldozers and helicopters. The goal is not necessarily to extinguish the fire but to help it burn itself out by depriving it of fuel. Bulldozers knock down trees to clear fire lanes perhaps a hundred feet wide that embers cannot cross. Helicopters and airplanes dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the wildfire in order to cool it down. A cooler fire moves much slower than a hotter one.

In this part of the world, which has seen so many wildfires of this size, one rarely talks about recovery. That word implies that this occurrence is odd and that life will get back to normal. But here, I get a feeling similar to one I got in Japan. The Japanese sometimes speak of being “in between earthquakes.” In Western Canada, I think they are just between wildfires.

BC Cook, PhD taught history for over 20 years. He lived on Saipan and travels the Pacific but currently lives on the mainland U.S.