A former boyfriend, who’d worked as a wildland firefighter in the Rocky Mountain House area, had told me a story about a lookout. One day, while visiting one of the fire towers in the forest, he and his crew had noticed two grave-like mounds beneath the tower. “What’s that?” they asked the lookout. “I buried my soul,” he said. “What’s in the second mound?” someone asked, I imagine a bit nervously. “I killed a goat and buried it to keep my soul company,” he said.
I’d laughed at the story, but it only reinforced my doubts about the job. “I could never become a lookout,” I’d said, shaking my head in disbelief.
Yet—against all odds—that’s exactly what I’d signed myself up for. Somehow, despite my fears and reservations, I’d found myself atop a hundred-foot fire tower, more alone than I’d been in my thirty-one years. After over a decade of rejecting the North, I’d finally come back to the land that had shaped me. The truth is, I’d begun to crave the wildness of my childhood, to surrender once again to a homing instinct. And then there was love. A desire to start a new life with my fiancé and eventually bring him to Canada too.
But the fire tower didn’t feel like home—not yet, anyway. I couldn’t recognize in myself the girl I used to be, nor the woman who I’d become. I was afraid of facing myself, the past decade of my life, and the recent choices that had led me back to the Peace Country, far away from my fiancé, Akello, and the life we’d built together. It felt as though I’d been dropped off on another planet and traded in my former career, relationships, and life for one sole task: watching for smoke from wildfires burning out of control.
Ground fires in the boreal forest are dangerous because they burn unseen, insulated by layers of heavy peat and muskeg. These surreptitious fires can sleep and smoulder for days and weeks, hidden beneath the earth. But under the right conditions, on hot, gusty days, ground fires can come to life, awakened by the wind, shaken free from their roots.
For the past ten thousand years, the boreal has followed an ancient cycle of seasonal extremes. From November to April, the spongy boreal muskeg soils freeze solid, layered by snow and ice, and the flow of sap in the trees slows to a near halt. For months, the breath of the forest is barely audible until spring arrives, unlocking the blood and pulse of the boreal. By May, light swarms the northern skies and heat lures life back to the North, and the forests bake and dry and ready themselves to do as they’ve done for thousands of years: burn. The tightly bound coniferous seeds, cones poised at the tops of trees or the tips of branches, are desperate for release and regeneration. The forest succumbs to sudden acts of Mother Nature—soaring temperatures and bolts of molten hot lightning. Or to the clumsy hands of humans, who unknowingly, or acciden- tally, cause the majority of wildfires in the boreal forest. One strike.
One mistake. That’s all it takes for ignition, for wildfires to let rip across these lonely landscapes. The aftermath of wildfire in the boreal can easily be perceived as destructive, but it’s a natural phenomenon. Fire can also be ecologically regenerative. The spruce- and pine- and bark- dwelling insects and birds and mammals have been designed by nature to thrive and rise from the ashes. The boreal is an ecosystem shaped by wildfire. The old forest must burn in order for succession to take place.
Historically, wildfire cleansed the forest of dead, diseased, and dying trees. First Nations peoples in northern Alberta traditionally practised “cultural burning” on the landscape, using fire as a tool to transform old forest into grasslands and meadows to create new habitat for deer, moose, and elk, control rodent populations, and stimulate berry pro- duction. They’d set fire to the land in early spring or late fall, when the conditions were damp and wet and fire could smoulder slowly—at lower intensities—so as not to burn too hot and damage important cultural plants. But Indigenous burning practices were outlawed in Alberta, even criminalized, in the early twentieth century. Fire as an “evil” entity began to seep into the settler consciousness, particularly following WWII, when forestry operations became militarized.
A century’s worth of forest mismanagement in Canada—the agenda of suppressing wildfires, even small ones—has created a vast expanse of old forest that is literally dying to burn.
According to top climate scientists, the stakes for wildfires are changing drastically. The temperatures are rising and drought is intensifying. The forest is older and drier. In the northern boreal, the fire season has lengthened by more than twenty days a year. There are also more people on the Canadian landscape than ever before, which creates a higher probability of both people starting fires and people being in the way of wildfires. Scientists today agree: wildfires are burning hotter, faster, and more furiously through the forests, scorching not only what’s above ground but also potentially deep into the earth, burning trees, plant vegetation, roots, muskeg, and wildlife that can’t escape, right down to the mineral soil.
I’d come to face my truths, smouldering like a ground fire, at the tower. I’d see the smoke on the horizon, sense the wildfire burning out of control. I’d learn how everything you think you know about yourself can go up in flames, and be burned into ashes, so quickly. And yet I’d also witness the way fire powerfully transforms the boreal landscape and catalyzes regeneration.
On a hot, windy day, the newborn flame stirs, licks, sucks, crackles on the low-lying brush and skeletal branches. Trees torch like monks in protest. The wind shakes embers from their robes and the fire becomes unstoppable, carving out a hungry, haphazard trajectory. Within sec- onds the smoke can rise so black, voluminous, and terrifyingly animal, you can’t look away. You can’t see anything else. There is nothing for you to do but witness the smoke gathering, growing, accumulating into massive columns, staining the sky. This is how wildfires are born and witnessed in the boreal forest. This is how nature makes way for regeneration—life rushing, rushing, rising from the ashes.