Chances are it’s going to be a long hot dry summer in northern Ontario. Much of winter was like early spring. After a very warm spring that felt like a mild summer, I predict we are in for a hot one this year. This is great news for most northerners. We northerners know that cool and even cold weather is possible in our part of the world even during summer. I have actually seen it snow in June and July.
Typical winters are hard on us in the James Bay area. The early hot weather has people excited and they have their barbecues out, their yards ready for summer and people are heading out on the land to enjoy the sun. For the first time ever I am seeing motorcycles out very early and people have been riding since the first week of May.
Although most of us look forward to this type of hot, summer weather, there are some challenges and difficulties that come with this treat. As a northern Cree from the James Bay coast, I don’t prefer really hot weather all that much. We Cree generally enjoy the warm sun for short periods after having endured so many cold frosty winter days. However, I don’t like baking in the heat for days on end. I think my people’s physiology is designed more for the cold weather climate than for tropical heat. Most of my family and Cree friends feel the same way about very hot weather.
There is also a dangerous side of continued hot and dry weather in the form of forest and grass fires. Northern Ontario is covered in an endless forest of trees that rely on a steady supply of moisture and rain. As soon as the amount of rain slows down, it is only a matter of time until these water hungry forests start to dry up. It is a scary thought to imagine acres of tinder dry forest waiting for a simple spark to launch a firestorm.
It is easy enough to start a fire. Sometimes when conditions are right, it is very difficult to put out runaway flames. I have had several occasions as a young teenager in my home community of Attawapiskat where my friends I had experimented with the power of fire. I remember one spring when snow still lay on the ground, my friends and I built a large bonfire in a forest opening. We played around the warmth of the flames and as a bit of excitement we started poking at the fire. We wondered how flammable a tree could be and out of ignorant curiosity we took a long flaming log to the branches of a nearby tree. We were amazed and shocked when the tree erupted in yellow fire and white smoke. Thankfully, only the one tree took fire and the fear we felt at watching the towering inferno made us realize the power of heat and combustion.
I have always been fascinated by fire and I think most people are. There is a deep instinctual pride in all of us that our species is capable of having control over fire. No other animal on the planet dares go near any kind of hot flame. Fire seems to draw us when we are young and have little knowledge of the world.
As I grew older, my parents and Elders taught me about having respect for fire. As a matter of fact, I began to view fire as a necessary part of life. Even now, fire is an important part of life in the north. Many people still use it as an affordable way to heat their homes. When people go out on the land, fire is a primary source of heat and cooking food. In the non-Native world, fire is considered in use as a form of recreation and as part of a camping activity in the woods. For many in the non-Native world, fire is actually categorized in a negative light. For most people living in major centres where open flames are heavily regulated, fire is a dangerous terrible thing that mostly appears in the form of tragic house infernos. The only time many people experience the power of fire is through the destructive power of a runaway inferno and at that point things get very bad quickly.
In many rural areas, people enjoy burning grass as a way to control vegetation on their property. Everybody seems to like the smell of burning grass. To many people it is a signal for summer and a sign that warm weather is here. However, if one is not careful, a grass fire fanned by a wind can quickly take on a life of its own. If conditions are right, fire can travel fast and aggressively. Winds have a habit of changing directions at different times of the day and depending on the weather, a breeze can fan a little fire into a roaring blaze that can travel “like wildfire” and cause much havoc.
I learned at an early age never to build a fire unless I needed it for warmth or to cook some food. I also learned never to abandon a burning fire and I was taught that I should spend the necessary time to extinguish every ember with water or sand to make sure there was no danger once I had gone. So when you hear those alerts from the Ministry of Natural Resources through the media on the degree of fire hazard it is a good idea to pay attention. A forest fire is like a bomb and can wipe out thousands of acres of trees, animal habitat and wildlife in a matter of hours. Think twice when it comes to fire.