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Photo Essays

Wildfire Nation

Last week’s drive home to Vancouver from the Prairies felt like a road trip skirting the gates of hell.

Steve Burgess 9 Aug

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. And helicopters. Well east of Princeton, where the Wolfe Lake fires were announcing their presence with a wide plume of smoke across the sky over Highway 3, a hovering copter lowered its bucket into the Similkameen River. Like Apocalypse Now in reverse, the chopper headed off toward the distant line of mountains to fight a battle against destruction. That I was headed in the same direction felt more than a little disconcerting.

It was Thursday afternoon and I was westbound on the Crowsnest Highway, returning from a trip to the Prairies. There were few places along the way where evidence of wildfires had been absent. On the way east on Highway 3 I had passed a spot where red/orange flame retardant had stained the highway like a crime scene; in Manitoba thick smoke from Ontario fires had descended on Riding Mountain National Park. Smoky days had periodically arrived wherever I went, clouding the skies over southern Saskatchewan and obscuring the Alberta sun.

A hovering pilot lowers a bucket into the Similkameen River to gather water for firefighting. Photo by Steve Burgess.

It's a cruel detail that the haze makes it hard to tell whether the clouds are promising rain or just reminding you of its absence. It has been a brutally dry year on the Prairies. While Manitoba crops looked to be behind schedule, many of the fields I saw along Highway 13 in Saskatchewan were beyond saving. As a final insult, grasshoppers attacked the stunted wheat in biblical swarms.

There was a random quality to the wildfire effects. On my way home I stopped for the night in Creston, which seemed relatively clear as of Thursday morning. Driving through Castlegar an hour and a half later, the town was bathed in a river of blue haze. In Osoyoos, where residents have been living under a pall of apprehension after weeks of local wildfires, I stopped at Fernandes Fruit Market to buy a few of the season’s first Okanagan tomatoes. They are late in arriving, one of the owners told me with a shake of the head: “Tomatoes don’t like smoke.”

Now further west I appeared to be getting close to a source. At least two fires had recently been sparked by lightning around Wolfe Lake, and residents of Princeton looked up at the sky with a sense of foreboding that surely goes back at least to the last days of Pompeii.

Smoke rising near Highway 3 west of Princeton. Photo by Steve Burgess.

West of Princeton the towers of smoke were evident from the road. This was not the general smoky haze that has become familiar to city dwellers in Vancouver and across Canada — the streams of smoke were more distinct. The crimson sun flickering behind the trees cast a light on my car hood that eerily resembled a flashing red alarm. But a few hundred metres along the sun was yellow again, the sky relatively clear until the next plume.

But those plumes were frightening. Coming around a bend I drove into a choking fog, a cloud of blue smoke painting the highway thicker than a Picasso canvas. Visibility was not much better than in a prairie blizzard.

‘Coming around a bend I drove into a choking fog.’ Photo by Steve Burgess.

The experience of driving the Crowsnest Highway has always been connected to the majestic forests that stretch away in every direction, a reminder of the vastness of this country and perhaps a reassuring sign that there are precincts of nature largely untouched by humanity. But if that perception was ever true it certainly seems a false comfort now. We are changing the climate, and from that phenomenon nothing and nowhere is safe.

Once back home in Vancouver I turned on the news to see more fires raging. But not the ones I'd passed. The White Rock Lake fire had burned through the community of Monte Creek and was threatening nearby towns. Like a minor skirmish in a major war, the Wolfe Lake fires were not even making news. And I found myself wondering just how many helicopters we have in this province.  [Tyee]

Read more: Photo Essays, Environment

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