In The Fire at Ground Zero

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary

As one might predict from our fairly dry summer, the incidence of forest fires in Manitoba in 2006 is higher than normal – with 520 outbreaks compared to a ten-year average of 460. As a veteran of firefighting during one of the worst seasons on record, the summer of 1989, that scary fact reminds me of the selfless dedication of the people risking life and limb on the front lines to protect their communities.

By the autumn of 1989, 1,140 forest fires consuming 2.7 million hectares had raged across northern Manitoba. The fires forced the evacuation of 25 communities, with about 25,000 people displaced. Damage and fire-fighting costs were estimated at $72 million.

Like many others living in The Pas, I was recruited to fight the big Talbot Lake fire burning near Moose Lake. My crew, which included the legendary northerner, Albert Ballantyne, operated four bulldozers at ground zero. Ollie Watts and Arnold Thorn, who would raid the cook’s tent each morning in a search for raw onions which, to the amusement of native firefighters, they would eat like apples, made up the rest of our team.

Although much has changed today, with more safety measures in place, fighting a large forest fire is still a very dangerous task.

One day, a Natural Resources officer (NRO) told us to build landing pads for helicopters every thousand yards or so along the fire line. He indicated the wind had changed and, if the fire decided to take off, he wanted pads for the choppers to pull the fire crews out in a hurry.

Poor visibility due to heavy smoke made it almost impossible to see that far ahead. Our job was punctuated by the constant whup-whup of helicopter rotors and, at times only 20 feet above the trees, the roar of water bombers steadily dumping tons of water on the fire. As I looked down the fire line, ghosts seemed to approach. They materialized into two firefighters with water packs on their backs and nozzles in their hands, their faces blackened by soot as they walked past then disappeared again into the smoke. Later, I accidentally ran over a fire hose and felt bad when two more had to emerge out of the haze to replace it.

On another day, all four dozers were building a wide fireguard for the back-burn team to light a fire which would burn towards the original conflagration, thereby exhausting its source of fuel. A young cow moose ran out of the bush onto the fireguard, its hide patchy and smouldering from the fire. A passing helicopter pilot saw the animal’s predicament and dropped water on her, but the weight of the water flattened the moose. Everything appeared to stand still as we stopped what we were doing and watched and hoped the animal would find its legs and get up. One of the victims of a forest fire lay before us; she had endured too much smoke, heat and fire and succumbed to her injuries.

We continued along and soon came to a bay still iced over, even though the lake was completely free of ice. The cattails and grass protruding through the ice had to be plowed down. As our dozers had wider pads, Ballantyne and myself were volunteered. But how deep was the bay? Unsure if we would crash through or not, we had an audience as we started onto the ice. We opted to run in high gear to lessen the chance of breaking through and hit the ice in parallel, one behind another. The ice rolled in front of our dozers like a wave but did not break. After several passes we climbed the far shore and laughed at our good luck and dry clothes.

We were informed that a fire-camp had been set up around the point and a chopper would take us out from there. We worked our way along the shoreline and soon emerged into a small clearing that contained a pile of tents, groceries and other gear but no other people. Albert suggested we cook ourselves a meal while waiting for our ride out. When the helicopter arrived, the pilot informed us that the fire had changed direction and the crew that was supposed to camp here had been. Not knowing if we would return to burnt-up machines, we left them in the centre of the clearing.

Next morning an NRO told us that the change of wind meant it was no longer safe to put in fireguards from our position. “No problem,” Ballantyne said. “We can go in.” All morning, I did my best to follow the NRO’s ribbons marked along the fire’s edge. I went ahead and knocked down trees while Ballantyne followed and pushed up the trees away from the fire’s path.

With a forest fire, the worst part of the day is early afternoon. Until then, the fire burns along slowly and we could work fairly close to it, but then it gets really hot. On that day, the NRO’s assessment of the danger came back to haunt us. Around 1:00 pm, the fire took off and start shooting plumes 30 to 40 feet above the trees, with a roar like a jet plane taking off. I quickly realized there was no possible chance of out running the fire through the thick bush, but I had lost my sense of the direction in which the lake now lay.

I plowed a large u-turn in the bush and headed straight back. On the other side, I was relieved to see Ballantyne heading in my direction. The NRO soon emerged from my trail through the bush and said, “You almost ran over me! With the roar of the fire I could not hear your cat engine. All I saw was trees coming down in front of me and dived out of the way as you went past me.” He called for help but his two-way radio wasn’t transmitting.

We knew we were in a very bad situation. Suddenly a small spotter plane called a bird dog appeared overhead and soon water tankers were diving in one after another to hit the fire all around us. It was a beautiful sight and a great relief for us. I now know what a trapped animal feels like, with nowhere to run or escape.

This was not a good day. After the tankers hit the fire for over an hour, we went back to work. Pushing up downed trees can be dangerous, as I soon found out. Something caught the corner of my eye and I quickly stopped the dozer. Not a second too soon. On my left side, a broken tree had found its way past my dozer blade and was only six inches from impaling me. An hour later, a similar tree went through the dozer’s radiator. That put me out of commission until a mechanic could be flown in.

Days later, we worked our way out to the highway where we were to knock down bush on a new fire line. Two skidders from the now defunct company, Moose Lake Loggers, were to follow us and do brush push-up. They were already there, about half a kilometre ahead of us, when the fire decided to take off. Bouncing up and down the rough terrain, the skidders made a run in our direction as they tried to outrun the fire just behind them. Reaching us, they hopped out of their machines and laughed nervously. “Pretty damned close, eh?” one of them said. Once the fire died back down, in we went again.

I no longer fight fires, but my job with Manitoba Conservation takes me to Initial Attack bases where the Province has placed highly trained firefighters throughout Manitoba. They monitor the forest fire situation with aircraft and Initial Attack teams are quickly lifted into a start zone. They are usually very successful in putting down a new fire, sometimes with the aid of a nearby water tanker.

My favourite place at these bases is the dining room, where cooks may feed over 100 men and women during a fire. At the Wekusko Attack base, longtime cooks Christine Barbeau, Maureen Cousins and Barb Finlay have witnessed times when the camp overflows when a big one breaks out. Just outside their windows, as many as eight helicopters may park overnight. These ladies sometimes cook for 25 days straight without a day off.

With another hot summer just about over, the people of Manitoba owe these workers a big “Thank you” for their often perilous work.