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Martha Muzychka: Smoke gets in your eyes

At the height of the Kenmount Terrace fire Monday, thick smoke engulfed the neighbourhood as firefighters battled to save it. —
At the height of the Kenmount Terrace fire Monday, thick smoke engulfed the neighbourhood as firefighters battled to save it. — Joe Gibbons

Monday’s fire threat to Kenmount Terrace in St. John’s was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which was the stark reminder of the fire that ravaged Fort McMurray two years ago.

Although it was, thankfully, not nearly as devastating to the area as it was for Fort McMurray, Monday’s fire was still stressful, frightening, and hugely concerning. People raced home to rescue their pets. Local businesses offered help with transportation. Locals on various social media networks shared updates.

Even the next day the danger was ever present, as firefighters were called back when a small fire broke out in the same area.

I used to live in Paradise, and I remember when a huge fire that happened more than two decades ago that threatened Masonic Park. I recall watching the water bombers flying overhead, back from their refills at Octagon Pond.

It was well before we had social media, and even cellphones weren’t that commonly used. We followed the radio updates and breathed huge sighs of relief — albeit slightly tinged with the smoke from the fire — when we learned it was out and that firefighters would be on the scene to ensure no hot spots flared.

A quick scan of the news across the country shows that other regions are also on high alert or are actively fighting fires. Despite our slow start to summer, the threat of forest fires is quite real.

I think about this often as I drive in St. John’s. We have created many green spaces and we also have wild spaces like the Southside Hills and Pippy Park. We may think forest fires only happen in wilderness and yet our towns and cities are creeping steadily towards woodlands. Even if you live in other parts of our province, you are never far from a forest or wild space.

As I write this column, it is too early to tell what caused the fire as it is still under investigation. However, given that our fire hazard watch just went to high and severe from mild to moderate, we will need to be watchful and careful.

Dryer winters and springs mean a lot more combustible material is ready to go up in flames. That coupled with high winds means fires can quickly spiral out of control.

And while forest fires do start spontaneously, usually the result of lightning strikes roughly 45 per cent of the time, the majority (or 55 per cent) is caused by humans.

Small wonder that fire departments keep warning people about backyard campfires, and why those popular chimineas not only need to be well away from structures, but have to be managed safely at all times.

And we should also be wary of barbecues. Only last month a house in Northwest River was destroyed when high winds carried the flames from a barbecue and set fire to the house.

But my mind often goes to something that, when lit, is much smaller than a backyard fire. So small, in fact, you can put it in your hand.

Or, to be frank, get tossed right out of it.

Think about it: I can’t have been the only one to see people chuck their cigarettes out the window of their cars. We live in a windy place. Most times, what people in other provinces think is a gale, we see as a small breeze.

And yet, that cigarette flying through the air could land in a space with enough dry tinder to launch a massive fire.

It is the lack of care I find troubling. Even though human-caused fires are usually spotted and dealt with quickly, they can cause huge amounts of damage.

I’ve never understood why humans think it is perfectly OK to ditch their cigarette (or any other garbage, really) out their car windows. It shows not only a lack of care but a lack of duty or responsibility.

It takes a village to raise a child. How about we remember that it takes a single human to wreck a forest?

Martha Muzychka is a writer and a consultant living in St. John’s. Twitter:@marthamuzychka

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