This is a story I wrote many, many years ago about Red Lake’s forest fire evacuation in 1980. This hot weather is bringing back those memories! Some names were changed but the events are true! Another scary time in my life.
It was hot outside; that kind of sticky, wet, hot that made your clothes cling to your body. It didn’t matter what you tried, you just couldn’t cool off. The humidity combined with the smoke from the nearby forest fire caused the air to feel like you were trapped in a moist, heavy blanket with a very unique and distinct odour.
Kathy hadn’t experienced this before; it was strange and creepy. The sun above was a thick blur of orange in a hazy sky.
Every spring and summer there was a threat of forest fires. This was just part of living at the end of Highway 105 in Northwestern Ontario. Driving down 105 would normally be an enjoyable, scenic trip on a curving road flanked on both sides by a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees, lush and green. This spring, however, a large forest fire was making its way up the only road that led into and out of the little town. Members of the community were holding their breath, crossing their fingers, and performing any other ritual they thought might help, but in the end, relying on the weary fire fighters to keep the fire-breathing dragon at bay.
Two days previously, there had been ash raining down from the sky; nasty on white jeans. Apparently there was also a volcano erupting thousands of miles away in the States and the smoke and ash were coming this way as well. Just what they needed. Maybe it was the end of the world. This was it, Armageddon, like the Bible said. Soon there would be plagues and locusts.
That’s what the two young girls laughed about as they strolled down the sidewalk towards the downtown area on that hot May afternoon. The two best friends chatted about the fire and wondered out loud how close it would actually get.
“We should phone the police and ask them about the situation,” Kathy stated. “I mean we are responsible for looking after the Smith’s cats and what are we supposed to do if the town is evacuated?”
“We won’t be evacuated,” Dale replied trying to sound convincing. “They’ll get it under control. But it is getting smoky and my asthma is acting up. My parents want to fly out and go stay at Gramma’s house in Manitoba.”
“Oh, what about the stupid cats?”
“Phil and Margaret should be home day after tomorrow. We wouldn’t be leaving until tomorrow anyway.”
“You’re lucky. You get to go to your gramma’s. We would probably go camp on an island. My dad would never leave,” Kathy sighed as the girls rounded the corner and headed up the driveway to the Smith’s apartment building.
The apartment was silent as they entered. They were not greeted at the door by the two small furry creatures that usually came to rub themselves around the legs of the girls, purring happily.
“I guess they must be out in the yard,” Dale said looking at the open window. “What do we do now?”
“I’m going to phone the police station to find out the fire situation,” Kathy decided as she reached for the phone and began to dial. 727-2418.
“Hello,” said a familiar voice at the other end of the receiver.
“Dad?? I dialed the police station, I’m pretty sure. I’m going to try again, this is weird. Bye”
“Hello,” her dad repeated into the phone again the second time she dialed.
“Wow, this is strange, I’m dialing the O.P.P. number and it’s ringing at our house. Guess we’ll have to walk down to the station and ask them our questions.”
The girls left some fresh water and food for the cats and locked the door behind them as they left. The living room window was still cranked open a crack for the cats to come and go as the Smiths had instructed them to leave it. They slowly walked back towards the downtown area, where the police station was located. The temperature was almost unbearable and they were happy to reach the building which was air conditioned.
“If the town is ordered to evacuate, all pets will be left behind and probably safer outside of the house. If you leave the window open for them, that should be okay,” Sheila, the clerk told the girls. She was very busy as the phone lines were ringing constantly.
“Let’s go home, I’m feeling nervous,” Kathy whispered as they reached the sidewalk once again.
“Yes, I agree and the smoke is getting thicker,” Dale replied.
Just as they reached the Lakeview restaurant next to the station, where both girls worked part-time, the door opened and they were greeted by Mr. Johnson, their boss. He was handing out melting popsicles from the freezer and gave them each one. He told them the hydro had gone off and he was closing the restaurant. This just added to the girls’ worry and they hurried home as quickly as their feet would take them. The little town had an eerie, unfamiliar feeling in the air as people were closing their stores and trying to find out any information they could as to the status of the fire.
Back at home, Kathy paced the floor, the queasy, churning pit of her stomach growing as the minutes ticked by. She had already packed her little blue suitcase with some clothes, her jewelry, make-up and diary; everything important to the sixteen year old. The announcer on the radio reported that everyone should have one bag packed with their essentials ready, in case of evacuation by air. As of yet, Kathy’s father had not shown any indication of leaving. He was as cool as a cucumber, which infuriated Kathy, who was sure they were all going to burn here in this town while everyone else left for safety.
“Dad, don’t you think we should get ready to go?” she asked for the third time.
“Oh no, we don’t have to leave town, we have a boat if we need one,” her dad was replying when suddenly outside they heard a loud siren and then a voice over a loud speaker from a vehicle driving slowly down the street.
“This is an evacuation order! Pack one bag of belongings per person, secure your home and go to Cochenour dock where you will be taken to McKenzie Island. This is a mandatory evacuation!”
The vehicle continued down the street bellowing instructions for residents.
“Oh my God, Dad, we have to leave! The fire is coming!”
“Calm down Kathy,” her dad ordered, “I guess we will pack and get ready to leave before they throw us out of here.”
At last there was movement. She ran to her room and searched through the pile of clothes on the bed for the camera that she knew was there somewhere in the mess. Good, there was film in it. She tucked it into her purse and went out to the kitchen where her parents were taking stuff out to the old station wagon. Her younger brother, Billy, was also packing up a few of his belongings. The dog, Bruno, was pacing back and forth, nervously. He knew something was up.
Within the hour they were at the dock where her father’s little skiff was tied for the summer. Kathy felt like she was in some kind of sci-fi movie. Cars were lined up on the road going out of town to the appointed dock. What were people without vehicles doing? It was at least 15 kms to the McKenzie Island dock. There must be buses provided for the people, she decided. Wow, what chaos. People and cars were everywhere!
They climbed into their boat and began slowly steering out into the smoke-filled bay. They were soon among many boats making their way out of Howey Bay. Kathy looked back to shore at the little town that she loved, that was now covered in a haze and filled with frightened people. What was happening to the Smith’s cats, Junior and Fluffy? Would they be okay? Where was Dale and her family? Kathy picked up Bruno, and held him tight as they crawled farther and farther from her home town.
When they reached the middle of Howey Bay, she continued to look back at the ominous billows of smoke beyond the town. What would they do if their home burned? What if the town burned? Hey, there would be no school. That would be a bonus. But, they would just find another place to send everyone to school. It would be inconvenient. Friends might get separated. The town better not burn. That school better not burn.
Her father steered the boat out of the bay and they headed off across the big stretch of lake to the Fish Camp. They would stay there, Dad said, and see what happens. Kathy had spent the previous six summers at the Fish Camp which was on Fisherman’s Island when her dad commercially fished for white fish each summer. He had just sold the business but still had access to the property. Even though they did not have a lot of food packed, they brought everything that was possible to bring. Dad said they would catch fish.
Shortly after they arrived at the Fish Camp dock and were unloading the boat, another boat rounded the corner of the island, coming their way.
“It’s Uncle Tommy,” Billy said, looking towards the red and white power boat that was not pulling up to the dock. Inside the boat sat, Uncle Tommy, Auntie Mary and their family. The cousins were here.
Together the two families would camp out and watch the flames at night, praying their homes didn’t burn.
(Kathy would be put on one of the last Hercules leaving town with her Aunt Mary, cousins Debbie and baby Jenny. Her brother, parents, Uncle Tom and cousins Leslie and Tommy would stay at the Fish Camp. As soon as possible the Tetlocks returned to town and fed the dogs in the neighbourhood.)