Friday, I drove back from Bella Coola, crossing the burning zone in daylight. This is what I saw:
Somewhere between Tatla Lake and Alexis Creek. Looks like an interface fire.
As I approached the fire zone, I came to the end of a long line of parked cars and trucks, and a flagger. The helicopters were dropping retardant on the road, he told me; we would have to wait. About an hour, he said.
Eventually, the all-clear was given, and we all drove on into the smoke.
The blackened remains of a forest, with fires burning behind the next hill.
Another burnt area, the fire doused before it finished off the trees. They're dead, though. The fire is now following a side road along the ridge.
Scenic drive. Once.
Smoke from the next still-green patch.
Another line-up; another flagger. This time, we had to wait for an escort through Bull Canyon. After a while, a police car emerged from the smoke, with a string of cars behind it. The policeman saw them on their way, parked and consulted with the flagger. She waved us forward then, and instructed each one of us as we came up: "You can go on alone, but drive fast, don't slow down, don't stop, don't wait to take photos. It's hot down there!"
Down that hill is Bull Canyon. And the flagger, just around the corner.
I behaved. I so wanted to take photos; the scene was indescribable. Fires, smoke, helicopters swinging through the smoke, trailing round bags of water and retardant. Machinery and more fires, small and tall. A stage setting for Dante.
Beloved Bull Canyon, where I have so often stopped for the night, for the pleasure of listening to the river in the dark, of seeing the stars overhead as though I could reach up and pick one to take home, of watching the pistachio-green river in the morning light; now the trees are gone, the hill scorched and bare. I got a brief glimpse of the river; a muddy orange colour, half ash, half red retardant.
I remembered the pair of sassy chipmunks who stole the Rice Krispies bars we were saving for the kids' desserts; how they raced away along the fence, but soon came back to see if there was more. The present generation will be their great-great-grandkids. I wondered what happens to them in a quick fire? Do they burrow into the soil? Do they race up the trees only to be trapped, to be cooked or to suffocate? Do they run to safety? Is there safety?
Birds can fly out of danger; bears can cover an amazing amount of territory; so can the deer. I would like to think the chipmunks have a way to escape. I doubt it.
The Chilcotin is a harsh environment, beautiful but deadly, with baking summers, vicious winters, stony soil, alkali water, hordes of famished mosquitoes. And fires. I love it, but I could never live there. I greatly admire those who have the guts and strength to endure and even prosper on this land.
Next: greenery and flowers. Cool rivers. Not on fire.