Fire & Rain

Fire & Rain

It may not look like much fun. A damp garden on a rain-splattered day.

But for Kristin and I this morning was a time to do a little jig of excitement. The Weather Gods, even if they had not exactly smiled on us, were at least showing the beginnings of a smirk.

After more than two months of scorching sun and cloudless skies the wildfire situation across much of BC has become critical. In the Cariboo region, 200 miles to the north-west of us, whole communities have been forced to abandon their homes and flee for safety.

A thick layer of smoky haze has hung all the way from Vancouver in the south to the borders of the Yukon in the north. Nightly TV broadcasts have shown much of the province as one great conflagration.

Of course, living in the wilds of BC as we do, we are no strangers to fires. Most summers there is a wildfire somewhere in our area and sometimes we awake to find our deck covered in ash.

We own a Honda water pump that we can throw in the river and some meaty fire hose to wash down our buildings with. I have often joked that all I need is a fireman’s hat and we would have our own Wild Bear Lodge (then Grizzly Bear Ranch) fire brigade.

But the scale of the threat this year has left little appetite for such jocularity. Even as the province-wide picture has been grim, we have also been under threat from a very local fire.

It started about five miles north-west of the ranch. At first the thin columns of smoke ascending into the pale blue sky and turning the sun a brilliant orange barely registered.

And then two weeks ago a brisk westerly wind picked up and the fire went from being something vaguely sinister but distant, to menacing and close.

The local authorities put us on evacuation alert. The police arrived to warn that the few local residents in this area must be prepared to leave at half an hour’s notice.

And at this crucial juncture, as Kristin was packing our valuables into our cars, sealing dog food into containers, and marshalling other essentials, I, of course, was in deepest Russia. I had been given a plum writing assignment by Magnum Photos.

I turned to Thomas, an old friend and veteran photographer, whom I was working with.

“I’m really sorry,” I said.

He said he totally understood.

An overnight flight to Moscow, an early morning hop to Zurich, and then a long cross-Atlantic haul (on an airline with the unlikely name of Edelweiss), and I was in Vancouver.

But with smoke now filling BC’s eastern valleys, my last leg to Castlegar, the closest airport we have at two and a half hours drive from the lodge, was not going to be taking off.

So – desperate to be home where I was needed – I flew to Cranbrook in the Rockies and called a local charter pilot who agreed to pick me up in his tiny Cessna.

It was a bumpy and smoky flight but we picked our way carefully through the haze and the mountains to Nelson. From there, Kjell, a good friend, drove me home.

I had barely had time to catch my breath when the fire-fighters arrived. We sketched out a plan to defend the lodge. Wood stacks off the decks, sheeting down the cabin walls, sprinklers, pumps, petrol. They would return, if and when the moment came, they assured us.

I have been home more than 10 days now and each day Kristin and I have watched the fire burn. With temperatures in the mid-to-high thirties and not a drop of moisture around there has been little to halt its advance.

But it has been a brooding rather than raging beast. Without high winds, it has picked off stands of trees one at a time rather than wholesale, like a cautious general seizing small but crucial parcels of terrain ahead of a planned offensive.

And then this morning, finally a setback for the beast. Not a lot of rain, hardly a deluge, but a steady pitter-patter.

We are hardly out of the woods yet, so to speak. The beast is tamed but not beaten. The forecast gives us more rain today, a little tomorrow, and then not much for the next two weeks.

The experts say that at least four days of solid rain would be needed to put the fire out completely. In the meantime with wind or lightning the fire could recoup lost ground and advance again.

But if I am not to abandon my writing project altogether I must return to the East for at least two weeks. So have I have booked a flight out tomorrow morning. I will be back at the ranch right at the beginning of September in time for grizzly season.

In the meantime I will leave Kristin, Karina (our brilliant guide) and Kim (our indomitable cook) to mind the fort. Cheryl, our housekeeper, has promised to come racing up the valley with a band of friends if needed.

We have tasked Masha, Karu and Katya with keeping a watchful eye over the front yard.

On the subject of Katya – and thank you to all those who have asked after her well-being – she is progressing as well as can be in the circumstances.

After emergency surgery that has left Kristin and I with the debt of a third-world nation, she is still confined to a crate but her spirits are high. And on the 10-minute walks we are allowed to take her on she is now a lot less wobbly at the back.

Her latest foible is to try and catch grasshoppers in the big field by the woodshed while one of us supports her rear-end with a sling. She makes the whole endeavour look like an event from a doggie version of the Paralympics.

One of the first things I will do when I get back is take Katya back to the surgeon for her two-month check-up. And if she gets the all-clear she will finally be able to leave the crate that has become her prison.

So, for those of you coming this Fall – and we still have a small handful of slots left in September and October if anyone is tempted to make a late booking – the good news is we are once again firing on all cylinders.

With a bit of luck the fire is now on the back foot. And Katya’s sciatic nerve and pelvis may soon be (nearly) as good as new.

In the meantime: here’s to more rain!