Fire season is upon us.
It’s the end of May, and a huge wildfire, some 10,000 hectares in size, is out of control and threatening the town of High Level in northwestern Alberta. Townsfolk were evacuated several days ago. It is only one of many fires burning across the country. Drought is making a bad situation worse.
Fire has been both a tool and a danger. Indigenous people fired the prairie to green up the grass that, in turn, brought the bison back in their numbers. Europeans traveling across the plains described fires stretching from one horizon to the other, creating a scene worthy of Dante’s Inferno, leaving behind miles of scorched, blackened earth that they crossed for days afterward.
Forest-dwellers regularly burned the undergrowth to keep it free of trash. In the process, they created a patchy environment with a much higher carrying capacity, with browse and pasture for both their livestock and wildlife. All benefited.
For decades, received wisdom was the wild fires were bad. We now are learning, all too well, the folly of that practice. We forgot, or didn’t know, or chose to ignore that fires are Nature’s way of getting rid of mess, of eliminating the Old to make way for the New. We forgot, or didn’t know, or chose to ignore that old succession-stage forests are prone to disease (such as Mountain Pine Beetle) and have a thick layer of trash, all of which, combined with the effects of climate change, result in a dangerously high probability of uncontrollable wild fire. Witness the partial destruction of the towns of Slave Lake (2011) and Fort McMurray (2016) in Alberta, the evacuation of thousands of residents in the interior of British Columbia (2017) and the disastrous Camp Fire (2018) in California that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed at least 86 people.
Finally, we seemed to have learned our lesson about the role of, and the need for, fire. Controlled burns of forests are now the norm. Even so, drought and higher than normal summer temperatures ensure a horrifying wild fire season ahead.
The prairies are not immune from fire, either. Farmers also fear fire.
It might have been about 1960. The continuous ring on our old party-line phone – a general ring, we called it – signaled an emergency. We already knew what it was about – a fire out of control across the road from our farmyard. Through the trees around our yard, we had seen the flames leaping high into the air. A neighbour had been burning stubble, the wind had caught the fire and sent it raging down the field. Now Dad and several neighbours were there, fighting to get it under control before it burned into town a mere 1/4 mile away. The situation looked desperate.
And then, the men set a backfire.
A major fire creates its own environment by sucking air towards it, creating an updraft. Backfires take advantage of that updraft.
I watched as the men started a second fire just in front of that advancing wall of flame. I did not understand why they thought it a good idea to set a second fire, but it didn’t take long to realize that they knew what they were doing. The smaller fire was sucked into the larger fire, burning up the stubble as it went. With no more fuel, the main fire fizzled out; the few remaining hot spots were quickly doused. The town was safe.
My grandmother told me about the first prairie fire she experienced after arriving at the homestead in 1910. She was terrified; she’d heard stories of the great prairie fire of a few years earlier that had burned across much of southwestern Saskatchewan. She looked around for a safe place and all she could see was the garden. She lay down on the ground, covered her head with her hands, and prayed that she and Abe, who was off fighting the fire, would be safe.
Grandma chuckled as she told the story. Perhaps she was remembering the image of a young woman cowering in the middle of the garden, and thinking how ridiculous she had been to think she would be safe there. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished long before it reached the homestead and she lived to tell the tale.
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