Add the summer of 2003 to Canada's forest fire mythology
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, August 30, 2003

Between SARS, mad cow, West Nile and the Great Ontario Power Outage, not to mention the heat wave that wilted most of Europe this summer, it is tempting to view the British Columbia forest fires as part of some apocalyptic nightmare in which the man-made forces of globalization and global warming conspired to wreak their worst. Tempting, yes, but valid? Take the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire that consumed 248 Kelowna homes and which, despite a summer wrought with disaster, riveted a nation. Headlines about the inferno that threatened to engulf a small city, reduced grown men to tears and mobilized tens of thousands of residents are receding, but a place in the annals of Canadian forest fire mythology, rather than apocalyptic nightmares, is the more likely outcome for this tragic event.

At 20,000 hectares, it's not that this forest fire is the biggest ever, though the aggregate number of such fires throughout British Columbia, like the number of dislocated people, may place it near the top of some list. In a country given to myriad forest fires at any time or place over the course of a summer, the statistics alone are staggering. The summer of 2002, for instance, saw 232,443 hectares of northern boreal forest up in flames in Quebec, while across the whole of Canada, the number jumped to more than two million. Drought, prevailing winds, uniquely combustible forest floor materials plus a spark are the forest fire's key elements.

Several years of drought have made western Canadian forests particularly vulnerable, but such conditions aren't new. In 1919, a snowless winter, an early spring drought, plus high winds and lightning, ignited blazes that covered more than 2.8 million hectares in Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta. The largest ever recorded in Canadian history, this fire became known as The Great Fire of 1919. "Big Bush Fires to the North of Prince Albert; Lac La Biche Village in Ashes, Entire District is Homeless, Condition of People Perilous," Edmonton's newspapers intoned.

Then there was the great Fernie Fire of 1908. The coal mining town of 5,000 people in the B.C. Interior was laid waste and 10 people died. In 1825, more than 200 perished in the legendary Miramichi fire, which also destroyed an estimated one-quarter of New Brunswick's standing timber. Winds tore the roofs off buildings and superheated air blistered the skin and burned lungs as frantic mothers struggled to locate confused children and frightened husbands shouted after wives.

All in all, thousands and thousands of forest fires have been recorded in Canada. In his 1989 book, Ghost Camps, British Columbia author Stephen Hume suggests that "(It) is one of those archetypes that reside in the Canadian psyche . a yearly reminder of the power of the natural elements to enter our lives and disrupt the rational and the routine . it is the image of the uncontrollable with its consuming - and perhaps cleansing? - power to destroy our works."

But it could be Canada this week when, in 1989, he wrote: "The fascination with the forest fire and our collective response to it is a distinctly Canadian phenomenon, probably because of the vast forests and tiny outposts of population which may still find themselves at risk from the elements. "Canadians are more aware of the fragility of place, sharing an uneasy accommodation with, and admiration for, an environment that remains impenetrable, implacable, unpredictable and wild."

Perhaps the most important forest fire story of all is one told to Hume by a paleobotanist. "Once a single forest fire moved the whole Arctic tree line to its present position, 250 kilometres south of where it had been. The smoke from that fire changed the climate of North America, blocking the sun's rays and triggering colder winters and different seasonal growing patterns. Animals moved and aboriginal cultures perished as far as the Missouri river basin."

As the distraught, humbled and even defiant residents of a not-so-tiny Kelowna resume their "uneasy accommodation with the environment," the debate about climate change, like the mythologized forest fire itself, will undoubtedly rage. But in a part of the world where Mother Nature is writ large - from the size of the skies to the depth of the lakes, the richness of the forests and the undulating power of the mountains - you'll have a hard time convincing western Canadians that, as in prehistoric times, she won't have the last word on that, too.

Margret Kopala's column on western perspectives appears here weekly.

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