The clouds of smoke that billowed from a forest fire behind 5 Wing Goose Bay a few weeks ago, choking out the residents around Terrington Basin and spreading far out over the waters of Lake Melville, were only the first of many that have since blanketed several parts of the region.
For those who’ve not been keeping score, at the time of this writing, a total of 11 forest fires have broken out in Labrador in less than four weeks.
The original base fire was followed four days later by a small bush fire near homes in the Happy Valley quarter of town.
Those two were only the prelude. A couple of weeks later, two blazes broke out near the Cartwright Junction, two started towards the remote Red Wine Mountains and one in the woods between the Goose Bay airbase and the Trans Labrador Highway.
The very next day saw another small fire ignited in the valley by Robert’s Road and the largest so far flared up only 30 kilometres north of North West River.
Then, during the following weekend, 5 Wing Goose Bay was again threatened by a blaze just to the west by Alexander Lake, and the community of Natuashish narrowly escaped harm when flames came to within several hundred metres of many homes.
There’s little doubt that by the time this column gets printed, there’ll be more forest fires to add to the list.
The reported causes of all these blazes have ranged from accident
to arson, but the most probable source of most of the fires seems to be lightning. Small but violent thunderstorms have been wandering over Labrador, sowing bright sparks in the rain-thirsty forest, sparks that germinate within days to bloom as tall, hungry flames that devour the tinder-dry trees without letup.
Some of the fires have been safely ignored, but several of them couldn’t and can’t be.
Roads have been closed.
Neighbourhoods in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Natuashish have been evacuated and the residents of North West River and Sheshatshiu have been put on evacuation alert — not only because of the threat the southward advancing flames might pose to lives and buildings, but also because for a while the preceding smoke was making it difficult for anyone in the two towns to breathe.
Another sure bet (alongside the likelihood of more fires occurring) is that all the people fighting the fires in their various ways will every day be one more day closer to utter exhaustion.
Volunteer and professional firefighters on ground crews and air crews, all those who support them by supplying them with food, water, equipment and transportation, and all those involved in cutting new firebreaks to protect their threatened communities have been kept on the run for longer than anyone should be.
There’s nothing for it but to offer admiration and gratitude, especially to the many volunteers who’ve selflessly given of themselves and their time to ensure their neighbours and their neighbours’ properties are safe. All that they do is worthwhile and worthy of thanks, since no one forces these men and women to put their own lives on hold, to go fight on the front edge of the fires, or to sweat in the woods cutting lines of defence
Out on the new firebreak a couple kilometres north of North West River and Sheshatshiu, within clear sight of a tall column of smoke rising above the distant hills, the many volunteers were in good spirits, despite the heat, humidity and hard work.
As one of the tree-cutters pointed out, a firebreak does two things: it makes people safer and it makes them feel safer.
Cutting a firebreak raises morale, not only among fearful residents, but also among the volunteers.
Cutting a firebreak gives many the very real opportunity to both be and feel useful. They don’t want to just wait anxiously for a good outcome.
So, maybe the volunteers that have been doing a great number of different things to help fight the oncoming flames aren’t completely selfless after all, but that doesn’t really matter. For all their efforts, actions and successes, they deserve all the accolades their communities can give them.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.