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Fiery Thoughts

At Anahim Lake, musing while B.C. Burns.

By Crawford Kilian 3 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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On the morning of Saturday, July 24, the Chilcotin's Gate cafe in Nimpo Lake was full of Swedish firefighters. The skies of the west Chilcotin were full of smoke.

The firefighters, young men and women on an exchange program, had been all over the province. Now they were beginning to gather near a fire in the southern reaches of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park--a fire that had been burning for over a month. In their red shirts and blue trousers, they had the gravitas of combat veterans. These were not excited young kids thirsting for adventure. In a few hours some of them would be evacuated just ahead of the explosive growth of the Lonesome Lake fire.

On the 24th the fire had spread a white haze all over the Chilcotin. On a visit to the Precipice, west of Anahim Lake, my wife and I could scarcely see across the canyon of the Hotnarko River. The peaks of the Rainbow Range, farther to the west, were lost in the smoke.

Destruction viewed from the porch

Back in Anahim Lake, we talked with a restaurant owner. He was cynical about the BC Fire Service policy that had allowed the fire to burn for weeks. A store clerk shared his opinion, but also saw the need for fire to remove beetle-killed trees--which are shockingly numerous across the region.

Clouds moved across Anahim Lake that afternoon. By 3:00, it looked as if a storm was moving in. But when I left the shade of my cabin porch, a few steps from the lakeshore, I looked up and saw an immense cloud of smoke streaming overhead from the southwest. The fire had begun to grow.

From the shore of Anahim Lake we could see two different worlds. To the west and north, the air had cleared; the Rainbow Range, Anahim Mountain, and the Ilgachuz mountains gleamed in the sunshine. To the south and southwest, and directly overhead, the sky was black. Smoke turned the sun into a red disc and sometimes blotted it out completely. Ashes, grey and greasy, fell around us.

Swedish shrugs

While we didn't learn of it until later, by then John Edwards had been evacuated from his father's famous cabin at Lonesome Lake, along with several Swedish firefighters. The fire was within 30 km of Anahim Lake, and threatening Charlotte Lake.

On Saturday evening we drove east of Anahim Lake to a hayfield with views in all directions. The south was still obscured by smoke all the way to the eastern horizon. The north was just another glorious summer evening as the sun sank toward the Rainbow Range.

On Sunday morning I was back in Nimpo Lake for coffee. The young Swedes were more numerous and even calmer than the day before. When I asked one how the fire was going, he shrugged: "Not too good, not too bad."

The wind had changed overnight. Most of the smoke was now blowing southeast--toward Vancouver--but a new smoke cloud was rising behind the mountains. The fire was continuing its explosive growth. A resort owner told me it had been upgraded to a level 6. He was stoic about the policies that had left the fire seemingly ignored for a month. It had already cost him money: a large section of Tweedsmuir was now closed to the public, so a Japanese film crew--working on a show about famous waterfalls--had cancelled its reservations and a segment on Hunlen Falls.

Coast in a haze

By late Sunday morning my wife and I were crossing Tweedsmuir on Highway 20, well north of the fire and under clear skies. As we went down the 15 percent grades on The Hill, the air was still smoky. But the Bella Coola Valley, well upwind of the fire, was breezy, green and cool.

Next day on the coastal ferry, we enjoyed clear air until we emerged from the inlets and began running down the coast toward Vancouver Island. The coast mountains here were lost in haze while the wind blew hard from the northwest. On Tuesday night, as we drove down the North Island Highway from Port McNeill to Campbell River, a red moon hung over the mountains; the fire in one of B.C.'s remotest valleys had extended its power over the whole coast.

A week later, the whole stretch of Highway 20 from Kleena Kleen to Tweedsmuir is under evacuation alert, though the fire is not yet threatening communities like Anahim Lake. Skies on July 31 were clear, with the wind blowing south, and over 300 firefighters were trying to contain the fire beyond Charlotte Lake.

Our relationship to forests, fire
Lonesome Lake is another reminder that we need to rethink our relationship to forests and fire. Stephen Pyne , in his excellent books on fire in history, has shown how Europeans long ago abandoned fire as a tool for farming and hunting. They then failed to understand how other cultures used fire to replenish and stabilize their environment. In the journals of his survey of western Canada in the late 1850s, Captain John Palliser was forever complaining about the Indians' burning of prairie and forest--without recognizing that those fires created the parkland through which he traveled so easily.

Now we have just begun to grasp the wisdom of the often-burned landscape. Our efforts to emulate the First Nations sometimes literally backfire, as when Parks Canada attempted a "controlled burn" in Jasper National Park in the spring of 2003. The assumption was that June rains would put the fire out; but June was dry and the fire devastated a great swathe south of the Athabasca River until August.

In our love of nature we insist on living close to forests, and in houses made from forest products. To protect both, we insist on fire suppression; that only ensures that fires will be both inevitable and far more violent.

So do we protect the Edwards cabin on Lonesome Lake in 2004 if it means an even worse fire in 2005 or 2010? Do we allow people to build their dream homes in fuel-rich forests? And do we protect the forests themselves, or let them burn until, like Louis Creek in 2003, even the saw mills burn with them?

Combustible decisions

The politics of combustion, internal and external, bedevil us in many forms: in the smog and carnage of automobiles, in the pollution and carnage of coal mining and burning, in the misery and carnage of wars fought for control of oil. Out of the entropy of combustion, we extract some desired work: a loaf of bread, a clay pot, a car bomb, a vacation at Anahim Lake. We are prepared to endure a great deal of suffering, our own and others', for the sake of such work.

We are also prepared to suffer if we can live closer to "nature"--that is, to a human artifact created by policy and technology over a hundred thousand years of fire use. Just as people rebuild on flood plains as soon as they've pumped out the rec room, those who live in the interface between woods and wooden houses will rebuild on the ashes. Over and over again.

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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