Monday 13 April 2015

My First Forest Fire

      Not much of interest is happening around here, so today I thought I would begin telling you a story from my life in the Robson Valley of BC.  

      My life took one of those unexpected turns at 9:30 on a hot and sunny August Saturday morning in 1978. I was an elementary teacher by trade, but since moving to McBride a year earlier, I had been unemployed. McBride is a small rural community of about 600 people, connected to the outside world only by Highway 16 it's 100 miles to Jasper, Alberta if you go east or 135 miles to Prince George, B.C. if you go west. 
    Since I had no permanent job at the time, I was diversifying my employment with a lot of little jobs, I had been a substitute teacher in the community during the school year, but I was finding that summer vacation was a rather slow period for substitute teachers. Joan and I had grown a big Romaine lettuce crop and we were able to sell some of that to the local grocery store.
    With fall on the horizon, there was always firewood to cut, and hay to get.  I don’t remember what I had on the work docket for that Saturday, but what ever it was, it had nothing to do with a forest fire.
    Alastair, who lived a couple of houses down the road worked for the British Columbia Forest Service. In our many visits and discussions, I managed to put the word out that I was available for any kind of work, and it was from Alastair that I received the call--There was a lightning strike and fire up the McGregor River, and they needed fire fighters. Was I willing to come and help?
    “Sure”, I told him “What do I do? 
     “Just bring some boots and gloves and come down to the ranger station as soon as you can”, Alastair  replied. Then added, “You’ll probably be away from home for a few days, and this is a helicopter show, so we will be flying you in.” 
    Wow, a helicopter ride!, Now, I was excited. It was the the mostly pristine mountains that had attracted us to move to the area, and now I was getting a chance to ride in a helicopter and see the mountains from the air. I had never been in a helicopter before, jeez, I had never had to fight a forest fire before. My mind was racing, by this sudden opening of new opportunities. 
    I was a fire fighter; there I stood stoically, axe in my hand, as sparks swirled around me.  I neatly stepped aside to dodge the incendiary branches that dropped from the orange tongues of the flames that leaped from the trees. The heat was intense. I took off my hardhat and wiped the sweat from my ash smeared brow. The fire roared, my 30 seconds of rest was over I must returned to the fight. 
    Back to reality, I told Joan what was happening. I gathered some work clothes, my heavy duty hiking boots, and a pair of work gloves. A camera, I mustn’t forget to take my camera. I was ready. Joan drove me the 6 miles to town and dropped me off at the ranger station. I kissed her good bye and began walking up the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but notice that there was a distinct lack of chaotic rushing around and yelling of orders that I had expected to see at the Forest Service office. It was a quiet sunny morning with no activity at all in sight. 
    I walked up the concrete steps, opened the door and stood by the counter. A man wearing a beige shirt came up to the other side of the counter asked if he could help me, and I replied that I had received a call from  Alastair, and that I was there to help fight the forest fire. The man walked around a wall and called to Alastair who came to the counter and welcomed me, then introduced me as David, his neighbor who was a teacher. He told me to follow him. 
    Alastair led me into a large room in the basement of the office, and handed me a big brown envelope with a string tie and told me that since I was a teacher, I was going to be the “Timekeeper” on the fire. He had me open the envelope and as I took out all of the various pads of forms and cards,   he explained to me what each of them was and what I was to record on them. Alastair introduced me to Grant, who was to be in charge of the fire. I was then left alone to review the various timekeeper pads and forms again and told to make sure that all of the pencils were sharpened. 
    Things seemed to be moving a whole lot slower than I had expected. There was still no other fire fighters that I could see. As I sat in the basement studying the timekeeper’s forms, I was introduced to a couple of other forest service guys and began to pick up a bit more information about the fire and what was going to happen.  
    The fire was caused by a lightning strike, up one of the tributaries of the McGregor River, which was about 50 miles northwest of McBride. There were no roads close to the fire so I was going to accompany a truckload of supplies to Dome Creek, the nearest  community to the fire, where a helicopter would pick me and the supplies up, and fly me in to the camp site. I would be helping set up the camp. The firefighters would not be flown into the camp until the afternoon. 
    More waiting.
    I accompanied Alastair to the grocery store to pick up the food order that they had been filling for the fire camp. I was starving; firefighting is hungry work. I took advantage of being at the grocery to buy myself a chocolate bar to tide me over until I got something more substantial to eat. We drove the groceries back to the office and where I did some more waiting. The guys at the office had some sandwiches brought end and luckily I was a recipient of one of them. 

    I will continue with the excitement on tomorrow’s blog.

To help you kill the time until then, look at my paintings:

No comments:

Post a Comment