COLUMN: Burning questions

Anne DeGrace on wildfires in fiction and non-fiction

In Canadian folksinger James Keelaghan’s 1995 song “Cold Missouri Waters,” a smoke-jumper recalls, on his death bed, the summer he lost 13 colleagues to the flames. The song comes to mind for me each year about this time, as smoke obscures the mountains and we wait for news.

The running updates on the CBC news, the recollection that, yes, we had planned to clear that dry underbrush around our rural homes, and the knowledge that legions of firefighters are out there right now in a hell of heat and sweat and smoke is ever-present.

That Keelaghan song was inspired by the tragic Mann Gulch fire of 1949, which is also hauntingly—and horrifyingly—described in the book Young Men of Fire by Norman MacLean. The subject, of course, is timeless: young men and women continue the fight in our burning forests.

Forest fire is nothing new. In 1825 more than a million hectares of forest became cinder in New Brunswick’s famous Miramichi fire. The largest recorded fire in North American history took place in northern B.C. and Alberta in 1950, encompassing 1,700,000 hectares of land. The McLure fire and the Okanagan Mountain Park fires of 2003, the West Kelowna fire of 2009, and last year’s Fort McMurray wildfire loom large in our collective memory.

We can speculate on the effects of climate change, mountain pine beetle, and the reduction of prescribed burns on the prevalence of wildfire—and we do. Although it doesn’t change the situation at hand, it’s good to understand the burning question of how we got here, so that when we are asked to clear brush, conserve water, and put up with a little smoke during a prescribed burn, we’re individually compliant in the interests of safety for all.

Author/journalist Andrew Nikiforuk’s 2011 book Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America’s Great Forests looks at the pine beetle infestation that turns trees copper brown and then black. There’s no doubt in my mind that, while wildfires have always been with us, we’re setting the stage like never before. Our Canadian government sees it too, as explained in the DVD The Burning Question: Mountain Pine Beetle and Fire in Our Forests.

MacLean’s book was not the first nor the last book concerned with wildfire forensics. The Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories of BC’s Worst Forest Fires by Keith Keller tells tales of courage and even miracles. Coming Through Fire: the Wildland Firefighter Experience by author David Greer and photographer Noel Hendrickson offers an unforgettable pictorial survey of fires and the professionals who fight them. And Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada by Stephen J. Pyne lays it all out: what happened, what we did, what we could have done better.

All of these are available on our shelves, along with the manual that should be required reading for all of us: Firesmart: Protecting Your Community Wildfire. Here, you can learn about the issues, hazard assessment, solutions, and emergency measures on both large and small scales. Additionally, you can access comprehensive information with a mouse-click at, and you can download the Firesmart Homeowner’s Manual at For wildfire updates go to

As the air outside becomes smoky from fires locally and further afield, the Library is your refuge—a source of both comfort and of information while we hope for the safety of the firefighters, people and animals, watch the skies for rain, and wait for the day when we can breathe a sigh of relief. Until next summer.

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