It is summer. We are all enjoying those lovely, long, warm summer days. The sun is up early and falls in the sky late at night. Summer birds are back, the chorus of peeping frogs is constant, insects buzz and bite and the fragrance of all kinds of flowers, weeds and grasses fills the air.
The city is a difficult place to be in the summer. So I try to spend most of my time out on the land near lakes and rivers. This summer on my drive through the northern wilderness, I have noticed blacked devastated forests as a result of fires. With the hot summer come the perfect conditions for forest fires. Many are caused by natural occurrences such as lightning, however we humans also play a role.
Forest fires are costly. Fires can ravage thousands of acres of beautiful forestland. This destroys habitat for birds and animals, not to mention we humans. These fires also kill many of the forest creatures and sometimes people.
I learned something about forest fires recently in a conversation with Chief Walter Naveau of Mattagami First Nation. His community had to be evacuated because of a threat of a huge fire that burned in the Timmins area in May. I was alarmed to find out that the fire came as close as four kilometres from the community and that Mattagami was saved only because the wind shifted in direction.
Chief Naveau and his band council stayed behind while the community was evacuated mostly to Kapuskasing, Ontario. Then suddenly things took a turn for the worse and he and his council members were evacuated the following day amid hellish circumstances. He told me how much fear everyone felt as they drove through heavy thick smoke that blotted out the sun but shimmered with the orange blaze of an oncoming fire. He made me realize just how fragile we are next to the power of nature.
Chief Naveau also made me aware of just how strong and capable a community can be. He pointed to the success of the evacuation as a result of the community leadership, Elders and members working together. He noted that a forward-thinking establishment of an emergency response plan really helped the community. He had words of thanks for Wabun Tribal Council and all its staff, Emergency Services, Ministry of Natural Resources, Nishnawbe-Aski Police Services (NAPS), the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and all the courageous firefighters. He told me that Mattagami First Nation would be forever grateful to the Town of Kapuskasing and its leadership for hosting the evacuees.
The awesome power of a major forest fire can only be known through experiencing it. Through Chief Naveau I got a second-hand look at just how frightening such a fire can be and how helpless people can feel when it hits. He also made me realize that emergency-response planning is something we should be grateful for because it saves lives.
I think that many of the people of Mattagami First Nation and including Chief Naveau feared that the entire community was going to be wiped out by this fire. It was such an enormous blaze that if the wind had not changed direction, the community might have been levelled despite all work of the firefighters. Chief Naveau was very emotional as he recalled how grateful everyone was that the children had a school to go back to, the Elders had their homes and everyone could return to life again in Mattagami.
I also discovered from him that the experience had affected the entire community from an emotional standpoint. Even when people were back and safe again in the community, many were still out of sorts for a time. I know it was a traumatic time for many but thanks to great leadership from Chief Naveau and his council, a healthy collection of Elders and a strong community membership, Mattagami First Nation has survived perhaps its greatest challenge ever.
I have a lot of respect for the power of Mother Nature after hearing Chief Naveau’s story. It also makes me think that it is necessary to keep reminding people to take care with fire in the forest. Global warming is bringing us some erratic weather and as a result there are times when the forest is very dry. Be aware of the forest conditions before you even start a fire. Don’t even think about it if it is very dry. When you do start any fire, make sure you put it out properly and never leave a fire unattended. Drown the last embers in plenty of water. Don’t ever throw a lit cigarette or cigar out a moving vehicle and be careful when discarding them on the land.
Have a great summer and don’t be the one who lets a fire get away.