Off Grid and Free: The Terror of Forest Fires, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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I can’t think of too many things that demand immediate attention more than walking out the door and seeing a billowing curtain of gray/black smoke rising skyward in the nearby forest. That will get the heart racing from 0 to 60 in a flash.

Since moving to our isolated piece of heaven in 2000, we’ve had at least four serious forest fire scares. One doesn’t hear much about these fires in the north unless they threaten a community like Fort McMurray, Alberta. But the fires that have burned around us were equally as vicious and consumed over ¾ million acres.

In 2002, during our first wildfire threat, Johanna was evacuated to town and I faced the fire alone. I knew it was coming when I heard what sounded like a freight train chugging in the distance. Fires make that sound when they are burning so vigorously, they are gasping for air. When I ran down to the beach, all I saw was a towering wall of undulating orange and red flames at the south end of our lake, 4 miles distant.

I wrote some last words on paper, placed it into the cold metal stove for safekeeping and headed to the boat. Even though I drove the boat towards the fire, I thought that was my best chance of survival since the lake widens out in the center giving me more room to maneuver.

That evening, as far as I was concerned, the whole world was in flames. I was surrounded! I survived the night by wearing my survival suit. Depending on the situation, I was either in the lake, in the boat or hunkered on an island. But being on an island was not a guaranteed safe sanctuary either as most of them burned when the fire roared through. What took Mother Nature decades to grow, was destroyed in seconds as whole hillsides went up in a whoosh.

Our most recent scare occurred in 2010. From the safety of our boat, Johanna and I watched as a wall of flames advanced towards our homestead. All we could do was watch as the smoke and flames engulfed our place, obliterating our view, and we were left with the sinking feeling that our home and property would not survive this hit.

The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness.

It was like being in a movie theater, the big screen showing a large-as-life fire burning right in front of us, with black smoke billowing upward and a dense veil of white-gray smoke hugging the ground so thickly that the bright orange flames were visible only when they leapt skyward above the fracas. A slight diminution in the smoke allowed just enough visibility to see an orange-red glow, much like opening the door to a furnace allows a view of the orange-red coals. And, like the furnace hungrily consuming its fuel, the intensity of the forest fire’s heat incinerated everything in its path.

The fire boss said there was nothing more to be done and we would have to trust the sprinklers and pumps. He considered doing a back burn, but the winds were unfavorable for this technique. We checked pumps one last time, donned smoke masks and goggles, and retreated to the boat while the fire crew took off.

Before the pilot had the float plane turned around for takeoff, we saw a towering wall of flames, well above treetop level, working its way towards the house. There was nothing we could do, and the feeling of the situation being lost was overwhelming. Utter hopelessness!

We could hear the roar of the fire, along with the steady hum of the water pumps. The Wajax pump used by professional fire fighters has an unmistakably loud, high-pitched whine, and as we bobbed nearby in the boat, the pump hiccupped, a stutter that caused my heart to skip a beat.

Please pump, don’t stop now.

When we first moved out here to build our homestead, we knew we would eventually have to deal with a forest fire. But we had no idea the scope and intensity a conflagration could possess. During construction, we flew in metal siding and roofing for our home’s exterior. It gives a great deal of fire resistance.

The Saskatchewan Government, specifically Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM), has been fabulous to work with during our times of need. They will do their utmost to fly in a fire crew to help protect property. But there are times when they are overwhelmed with dozens of simultaneous fires and are unable to render assistance.

We choose to live out here and ultimately our safety is our responsibility. As as result,we bought the necessary equipment to give us a fighting chance against a fire. In my next post, I’ll go through our spring ritual of setting up our equipment. I’ll have pictures and text of exactly how we took two direct hits from firestorms yet managed to survive them both.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back again shortly.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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