Up close, forest fire is hard to disregard

UNFORGETTABLE: Smoke at a distance turns into real concern.

June 20, 2011 

Ben Histand is spending the summer kayaking the length of the Yukon River, 1,900 miles through Canada and Alaska. He will file occasional dispatches from the field. Originally from Soldotna, he now lives in Anchorage.

Already after a few days on the river, the bends and hills and endless spruce woods start to blend together. What we saw downstream of Hootalinqua, though, will probably stay with me for a long time.

We'd seen haze and smelled a bit of smoke the day before, enough to make me remember I'd meant to pack some dust masks, but soon the air cleared and my thoughts moved on to other things. That evening at the Hootalinqua campsite, near the Teslin-Yukon confluence, was magnificent -- sunny and mostly clear, with late-night alpenglow on the mountains to the southeast.

In the morning, the smoky air had returned and those mountains were almost indistinguishable. But as we packed the winds shifted, and again my thoughts moved on.

Then the helicopter came over the trees, moving toward the Teslin valley, and as we came into its line of sight it turned abruptly and flew toward us, closer and closer, until it could no longer be doubted what the object of its interest was.

To be singled out and approached by a helicopter in the middle of a wilderness is to think very seriously about your situation. It occurred to me that the fire was probably closer than it had seemed; it also occurred to me that it was downstream, and therefore our only option in moving on by kayak was to go toward it. And finally, it occurred to me that whoever was hovering above us in that helicopter might think paddling toward the fire was a really bad idea (and they might be right). It didn't seem too far-fetched for them to be coming to tell us it was time to go home.

Fortunately for us and for our plans, that wasn't the case. When the helicopter landed, two Canadian forestry workers got off, asked us where we were going, and gruffly told us we'd be fine to pass through the fire that day (it was five kilometers to the northwest), as long as we stayed in the middle of the channel and didn't get out anywhere. They told us the fire was 12,000 hectares, and I tried in vain to remember how big a hectare is.

We thanked them and went to move along. We were already in our boats and I'd grounded myself on a bar to avoid being taken downstream during our parley. Now as I tried to push off, I nearly flipped over as my boat bumped noisily over the shallow cobbles. I didn't want the foresters to doubt my ability to stay upright, let alone travel safely through the incinerating countryside.

That ended up being the worst scare of the day. The sights that followed were incredible and humbling, but not threatening. A huge, amorphous smoke plume was visible as we paddled downstream, growing larger with each passing bend. Soon, we were watching fresh smoke actively billow up in several places, black smoke over here, white over there.

Another bend and Laura spotted flames in the trees. We gasped as individual spruce burned whole -- flames would be visible at the base, then suddenly a tongue would envelop the whole thing, with the trunk silhouetted against the bright orange. After maybe eight seconds the flames would subside to the base. Meanwhile adjacent trees stood by as if nothing was happening.

After 30 minutes or so, we passed beyond the actively burning area and came into miles and miles of charred forest on both banks, punctuated by a few still-flaming stumps and smoldering roots. Whitish ash covered the ground. There were pockets of living trees, though, too, and the arresting sight of snow in some places along the banks, right at the edge of large burned swaths. A lone widgeon flew by. Ash fell around us in the water. We wore wetted bandanas on our faces and paddled fifteen miles through haze.

Eventually we reached clear air again and found a place to camp on an island bar. It was chilly and the island was covered with driftwood, but I couldn't think of a worse idea than starting a fire.


Ben Histand is spending the summer kayaking the length of the Yukon River, 1,900 miles through Canada and Alaska. This is his third dispatch from the field. Originally from Soldotna, he now lives in Anchorage.

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