The Summer of Fire: Reflections from a Smoke Breather

I was driving home from the first face-to-face meeting of our Regional Council in four years. While meeting delegates were enjoying what it is like to see each other in 3D again, it seemed like the whole of north central Alberta had burst into flames.

Places I had driven through many, many times on my trips to and from church meetings along the Yellowhead Highway were being evacuated and frightened people were wondering if their homes would survive the wind fanned fires. I drove home with a province wide phone in show on the radio as callers told stories of harrowing escapes and gave information about where help could be found and what people should do.

That was May of 2023. Pretty soon those fires were sending smoke to blanket our skies. We would wake up in the morning and it would remind us of campground campfires. But there was no escaping this smoke by moving our camp chair upwind of the fire. The fires kept burning. We kept hearing of the fires in the Northwest Territories, and reports of places we knew well, under evacuation alert. We wondered about Yellowknife, the community in the NWT that holds half of the total population of the whole territory. For most of the summer, Yellowknife was not in any danger and then with the fire only fifteen kilometres away, and the threat of strong winds, the word came out: Yellowknife is under an evacuation order. Once again province and territory wide phone in shows were quickly arranged so that offers of assistance, stories of what the trip is like and how dangerous things were getting in the evacuated communities could be relayed over the radio waves.

It’s a long drive on a single road to get out of Yellowknife. It’s even longer when the flames can be seen on both sides of the highway and when there is a two hour wait to get gas at the only gas station on the long trip south. The other gasoline option had been elimintated when the hamlet of Enterprise was ninety percent destroyed by a wild fire in the previous week. We almost always stopped at Enterprise on the drives we made north and south from our home of fifteen years. My heart ached for that little bit of population on the long stretches of boreal forest lining the road north and south. Yellowknife was not the only threatened community. Earlier, Fort Smith – along the NWT-Alberta border had been
evacuated and Hay River was yet again on an evacuation order as the same fire that destroyed Enterprise was roaring closer to the community on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. With the evacuation of Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, sixty-five percent of the total population of the Northwest Territories was on evacuation.

We put word out that we could accommodate some evacuees if they ended up in our part of Alberta. Our offer was taken up by friends who were making their way by staying for periods of time with groups of family and friends as they waited to go home. They had been through two evacuation orders – the first when they were at their cabin when it was threatened by a different fire and then the second when their part of town in Yellowknife was the first to be informed that they needed to get out before it was too late.

It is hard to put into words what it is like to leave your place, not knowing whether you will come back to it intact, or face the devastation of losing your home and everything in it. Our friends were constantly checking news sources and fire information sites to monitor the progress of the fire and the fire suppression and fire fighting efforts.

They had checked in with various evacuation centres on their progress out of Yellowknife and throughout Alberta, partly to see what services were available and partly to find friends and acquaintances who shared the common story of escaping the threat from fire.

Their assessment of all these various evacuation efforts was that by far the most generous and responsive community offering support was one of the smallest. They reaped high praise on the community of Fox Creek and the efforts they had made to welcome the stranger and meet their needs in comforting and caring ways. That’s the rural angle I wanted to highlight in this article for the United Church Rural Ministry Network. Rural communities can add a knowledgeable and personal character to the help they offer. It is highly likely that they had learned their lesson from experience of their own evacuation in the early months of the summer of fire of 2023, those same days when I was driving back
home from a church meeting and wondering if the world had caught on fire.

Peter Chynoweth
Cochrane, Alberta