After the Fire

Now it is mid-August. I guess it is time to say something here. Cool weather has already come back, and some darkness in the middle of the night. The nightmarish heat and thick smoke of July is mostly past.  Night before last a downpour came, with thunder and sheets of rain – the first real rain we have had since sometime in the autumn of 2013.

Last night the ENR crew of 3 came by in their boat, to coil up hoses and pack sprinklers, stow the broken fire pump and shake hands again, inquire about the renovations at the big log workshop where we will winter.  Then off down the lake to stay ahead of a forecast overnight wind storm.

“Nature bats last.”

Easy to say, glibly and nonchalantly, with the right tone and the right stance. Wise words. Wisdom a little more difficult to acknowledge when she does step up to the plate and knock one’s entire life off kilter.

On the morning of the 4th of July I was up at the Daring Lake camp about 150 miles northwest of our home. It was just another day of Husky flying, with a wolf study and a grad student, checking out wolf den sites and looking to come up with a pup count at each of them. It was a summer morning, with a fresh breeze piping up from the east and a bit of tundra coolness in the air after the heat and flies of the day before. I sat in the office tent and tossed a back-and-forth Skype communication with Kristen, who was alone at the Hoarfrost River.

04/07/2014 7:28:21 AM

Dave: good morning, how is it there. cooler today up here with an east wind and no smoke.

Kristen: In a word. Smokey.  a bit of wind here too but I can only see a couple miles out on the lake. have a good day.

Dave: love you. flight plan on file here.

Kristen: OK xo love U 2~ me

And by that night, everything had changed. Our beloved house was gone, with everything in it. 17 years, 20-some since the first logs of its walls were cut and hauled and peeled and stacked. Gone too, the beautiful log guest cabin, apple of my log-builder’s eye and home to so many people doing so many different things over the 10 years of its life — for these buildings do seem to have had lives — gone, two sheds stuffed with the coming winter’s firewood — gone. The rest of it given up for lost, saved by sprinklers and hoses and lake water pumped at the eleventh hour.

By mid-morning on the fourth of July, two hours into the day, there was a full gale blowing here. Winds gusting over 30, peak gusts above 40 knots. The smoldering taiga-edge fire I so casually described in my blog posting of July 1, poised about 6 nautical miles northeast of us, began to run. Really move, as fires rarely do here. The swath of blackened ground lying northeast of us now has to be seen to be believed. That fire ran down those long sloping valleys stuffed with a hundred years or more of dry fuel. Ran and blew and must have also tossed some burning embers well ahead of itself to leap and speed its movement.

Kristen knew early on in that day that all bets were off. Despite her calls for help no one came or responded. “We have you on our radar” “We’ll send a plane out this afternoon to have a look” “The remote sensing image still shows the fire 9 kilometers from you.”

By mid afternoon she had fought her battle with every bit of strength and savvy she had, our little pump and hose “like a weasel pissing” by the time the long run of hose had reached north of the house.  The flames were in sight, a few meters back from the house, with the guest cabin already beginning to burn. She was driving the skid-steer, dumping sand in a last-ditch line south of the house, when she saw a hare bolting from the forest edge, and it struck her that this was it. She did what any sensible person – all alone after many hours of exhausting struggle and mounting fear and unheeded calls for assistance – would have done in her situation. She switched from fight to flight, turned the entire kennel of 44 dogs free to fend for themselves, took her camera and a laptop and her little carbine .44, a handheld phone receiver, left the communication systems turned on up at the doomed house, somehow wrestled the boat into the crashing waves and around the tip of the island to the lee side, and from the boat began sending messages and trying to make still more phone calls. The subject line alone still gives me a gulp whenever I see it, still sitting down there below a long line of condolence and assistance messages in the Inbox.





Nature had stepped up to the plate.

Times like these, the remoteness of this place comes into sharp focus. Water bomber planes were inbound from Yellowknife, flying an hour or more with the 35-knot headwind right on their nose, following the “bird dog” lead plane that would show them where to drop, but by the time they arrived there was nothing to be seen but a solid wall of smoke. Hot brown thick smoke, the smoke of a raging inferno. There would be no drop. It was all going. There was nothing more to be done as Kristen sat helplessly in the boat, still trying to send communications, talking to the bird dog pilot on 126.7, trying to keep the dogs from fighting as they crowded around the boat out on the tip of the rock island. Our nearest neighbors Roger and Libby and their two teenagers Gus and Winnie arrived, after a harrowing 20-mile journey hugging the coastline in their two small boats, the waves of McLeod Bay huge and wild and white-topped. Roger went ashore with Gus and Winnie, and a 100-pound bottle of propane exploded almost at the same time they disappeared into the smoke.  Thankfully, they all emerged.  That was that.  No one with an ounce of sense was going back in there now. Then, a while later, a lone helicopter with 3 already exhausted fire fighters called in from another fire a hundred miles west, one pump, a length of hose, a few sprinklers. The pilot just at the brink of turning back in the smoke, his visibility down to a matter of a few yards. Then through the smoke he caught a glimpse of an empty fuel drum at the cache, and he kept coming. Had he not made it in, I doubt we would have any buildings at all left now.  By the time I taxiied in from the east, having landed several miles down the coast where I could still safely do so, there were sprinklers raining cold lake water down on the perimeter.  The wind had died.  It was nearly midnight. 

At about 1 in the morning, a final image of that night which I will never forget: one of the young firefighters went up to the smoldering house and heated his hot-dog dinner up on a stick.  I chided him about it, and he looked sheepish. “It’s o.k., really, you go ahead and heat your hot dog up.  May as well get one last bit of use out of the old place…”  We both laughed softly.

We have our shop, our sauna, our barn and sheds, our tools and boats and the planes and the office of our little flying and guiding business. But the heart and soul of the place is gone. The house is just a pile of charred and twisted rubble. I can scarcely bring myself to walk up there these days, so mostly I don’t. It will be a while. That lovely, quirky, cozy log and timber castle we had built – a thousand or so square feet in three stories, and all the special “stuff” of each of us four – books, carvings, photos, gifts… All the warts and foibles of my amateur carpentry, which even my most talented friends could not completely cover over as we built the place. The kitchen and its nooks and crannies and treasures, the clothes in long drawers beneath our beds upstairs.

Time to pick up the pieces.   Hell, it’s not like we are the first people to ever lose a house in this world.  A long-ago friend of mine sent what words he could offer. He called up an image I had forgotten, of the fellow staffer who would stand up at the close of the Sunday meetings at the Boy Scout camp where I worked for four summers in my teens. Delivered tongue in cheek, I suppose, in those days, with a suitably ponderous tone and a furrowed brow: “Endeavor to Persevere.” Roger, wilco.

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