Posted by: Dave Neads | August 27, 2010

The Lesson of Fire

What do we decide to take? What do we leave behind? In a matter of just a few hours we needed to evaluate more than 24 years of building, collecting, gathering and accumulating the things we need, or at least thought we needed, to live on the flank of ARK.

There is a corridor running from the north tip of Lonesome Lake up to Anahim Peak in the area known as the “gap” where the Dean River punches through the Anahim volcanic belt on its mission through the Coast Mountains to north Bentick Arm, there to find solace in the tears of saltwater. This corridor is the breeding ground for many fires. It is here that the coastal air masses smash into the interior patterns, often creating high winds and, in early to mid summer, vicious lightning storms. Sparking and cracking late into the night, these outbursts of primal force hurl spear after spear of white hot energy at the forest, exploding trees into balls of flame.

Often these storms created on the anvil of the gods are without any rainfall, or at best very little. These conditions allow the incendiaries tossed from the sky to ignite circles of fire, God’s own napalm burning the drought-stricken forest. Such nodes of heat and smoke grow quickly. In the space of just 24 hours there can be a roaring wall of fire chugging across the landscape, virtually unstoppable.

This is what happened near our home on tinder hot night in early August.  In fact, that one particular electrical display created at least half a dozen fires in ARK, some of which joined forces to become literal monsters, while others like the one called the Heckman Pass Fire simply grew into unmanageable size in just a few hours.

The valley was full of smoke, we had difficulty breathing, but no information was available. What to do?

I called the local air services, the highways manager, a couple of ranchers out west on Highway 20. This allowed me to triangulate the location and size of the fire. I decided that for the moment, it did not pose any threat to our little community.

The next day we received a recorded (!) message telling us that we were under evacuation order and that we had three hours to leave the valley and head to Williams Lake. This was followed by a very strongly worded e-mail ordering us to do the same thing.

This was in contrast to the information I had put together and the risk assessment I was undertaking regarding our safety. Later that day, the warning was repeated, with visions of a wall of fire shrieking through the Precipice presented to us.

What is our decision to be? The official order, based on a policy to make sure that if anything went wrong, government would be blameless, versus our in-depth local knowledge and assessment.

We decided to pack and get ready while, at the same time, continue to monitor the situation and prepare to leave quickly if and when the fire began to threaten our valley or the access to and from it. It was then that we were forced to really see the evidence of our lives here. House, outbuildings, equipment, pets, livestock; so much in the way of material and spiritual infrastructure. There were six of us in the valley at the time, so we kept in constant touch. We had an escape plan devised, we knew who would take which dogs, cats, etc., what vehicles we would use where we would go.

In the end we decided to take the computer hard drives (now is that a sign of early 21st century or what?), some clothes, valuables, a few pieces of artwork, journals, necessary medications, other personal items. Not much, really, but it filled two vehicles. The core of our life here in the physical sense, but nothing in the emotional, living world can really fit into a van. Not possible.

It was quite a mental jolt to go through the process. Realizing that our home, a labour of love and determination for these last twenty plus years, was on its own. The capriciousness of the fire gods would determine its fate. We have no insurance since the rates have climbed so high we cannot afford them, thus if the house and buildings burned that would be it.

The MoF no longer has the resources to help build a perimeter for homes like ours. We simply are told to evacuate; no other remedies are available. It is sobering to realize we can no longer turn to government for help as we have done in the past. In 1987 we had a fire less than a kilometer away; crews were flown in, sprinklers were set up and helicopters were sent in; the fire was blocked and things went well. In 2006, sprinklers were set up at remote tourism lodges in Ark, again in the face of unstoppable fires, and buildings and infrastructure were saved. But this year we were told that these types of actions are no longer available. The Ministry no longer has the resources to protect. The response is simply an evacuation order.

In the end, we stayed. The winds were favourable the next day and moved the fire north and east further away, burning on the side of ARK and into the Rainbow mountains.

We dodged another one this time. But with increasing fire activity, decreasing government resources and just plain luck, there will come another moment of decision.

Fire is part of ARK’s life, part of the eternal connection from the bowels of the sun to the fire that warms us at the cave mouth. The lesson of fire is clear: At best we cope, we can never control or dominate, we can only lighten our load, be quick on our feet and hope for the best. Such is the human condition. Such is the lesson from ARK.


  1. Fascinating. I’ve recently read The Big Burn, Timothy Egan’s history of the huge fire in the Coeur d’Alene forests in August 1910, a sobering analysis of the changing nature of policy surrounding national forests in the US and the attitudes about managing them in the face of constant fire threat. It’s made me wonder about our own government’s committment to our forests and when we’ll get some detailed writing about this.

  2. Theresa:

    The B.C government is steadily abandoning our forests. budgets cut by over 50%, district offices closed, the list is long. Briony Penn has just written an article in FOCUS detailing the dismemberment of the MoF and the giveaway of our forests.


  3. Powerful writing Dave! TWhat a stressful experience!

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