Authors: Dave Hugelschaffer
Copyright Â© 2006 Dave Hugelschaffer
First ePub edition Â© Cormorant Books Inc. February, 2011
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The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Hugelschaffer. Dafe, 1967-
Day Into Night/Dave Hugelschaffer.
ps8615.u315d39 2006 c813.6 c2005-906944-9
Cover design: Angel Guerra/Archetype
Formatted for ePub by Bryan Jay Ibeas,
based on a text design by Tannice Goddard, Soul Oasis Networking
Cover image: D. Hugelschaffer
Editor: Marc CÃ´tÃ©
CORMORANT BOOKS INC.
215 SPADINA AVENUE, STUDIO 230, TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA M5T 2C7
BY THE TIME I ARRIVE, the fire has grown to an area the size of a small city. The view from the helicopter is impressive. Ten thousand acres of burning timber in a sea of green trees. A ragged rim of orange flickers at the crescent head of the fire and smoke rises like an erupting volcano in a column twisting miles into the sky, blotting out the sun, turning day into night. Aircraft glide silently around this conflagration like insects around a host. Some watch while others dump pitifully inadequate strings of water and red fire retardant in the path of the monster.
This monster will not be stopped. Not for weeks or months.
The helicopter banks, begins to descend toward a tiny clearing in the forest where men swarm like ants around tiny bulldozers and trucks. Base camp, but I’m not ready to deal with that chaos — my business lies at the heart of the fire. I may already be too late. I look at the pilot, shake my head, speak into the microphone which juts down from my headset.
“Not yet. I want to go for a few laps, take a good look.”
The pilot nods, swings back toward the fire. A young guy with red hair and freckled arms, his company is charging the Forest Service a thousand dollars an hour and he doesn’t care where he’s flying, just wants to keep the machine in the air as long as possible. A fire like this requires long hours and a lot of money. A million dollars a day for aircraft, manpower and supplies. I start to say something but the pilot cuts me off, calling base camp with our change of plans.
“... base, this is whisky-alpha-kilo, requesting entry into the fire zone.”
The reply is curt, metallic. We can do a few circuits at 5,000 feet. Too busy farther down. I’d hoped for a closer look but at this stage anyone who isn’t moving equipment or dropping something on the fire is considered a tourist. We spend ten minutes floating high above the action. From up here, human effort is invisible and the fire continues on its appointed task of consuming one generation of trees for replacement by another. There’s an eerie beauty to it, a serene single-mindedness on a staggering scale.
“You with the overhead team?” says the pilot.
“No. Fire investigation.”
There’s a pause as the pilot digests this. “They think someone started this?”
“It’s a possibility. The LLP didn’t pick up anything.”
Like any occupation, we have too much jargon, too many acronyms. “The lightning detection system. We’ve got lightning detectors spread across the province. They haven’t picked up anything here this spring. Still too early.”
A wry smile from the pilot.“I knew an Indian named Lightning once.”
I nod. “It’s happened before.” When it gets too quiet, the native employment program can kick in. But it’s not just the natives that get restless when there’s no work. The unofficial Forest Service definition of fire is a chemical reaction that converts biomass into overtime. “I heard of a pilot who used to drop White Owl cigars from his machine.”
The pilot’s grin widens. “Yeah, I heard that one too.”
We watch in silence for a few more minutes, staring down through the bubble windshield. The Ducks have arrived — two bright-yellow planes that can skim water right off the surface of a lake, drop it on a fire and return for more. Nothing better, if you have a lake close by, but this fire is on the slopes of the Cariboo Mountains, a steep plateau rising out of the northern forest. They’ll have to skim off the Peace River, 20 miles away.
“So you’re going to figure out who started this?” says the pilot.
“That’s the idea.”
Looking down, he shakes his head. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
I agree. As usual, investigation is one of the last thoughts during the initial flurry of actioning the fire, hiring equipment and manpower, setting up camps. No one bothered to flag the area where the fire started when it was smaller and it’s grown another thousand acres since I’ve arrived. The bigger the fire and the more people working on it, the harder it will be for me to do my job — find the point of origin and protect what evidence might have survived.
The pilot is curious. “Where do you think it started?”
“Well ...” I wait until we’ve done another half circuit, then point. “According to the weather report from the towers, the wind has been continuous from the northeast. The fire probably started over there and, if it was arson, from someplace with access — a cutline or road. With the dry conditions, the firebug would want to clear the area fairly quickly. You can see a group of cutblocks at the tail of the fire, a mile or so off a lease road. That would allow a bit of privacy and plenty of logging slash to get the fire rolling.”
“So you think it was arson?”
I chuckle. “Pretty hard to tell from up here. Could have been anything, like an old campfire or the hot exhaust from someone’s off-road vehicle. I had one fire started by a broken bottle.”
“The curve on the bottom acts just like a magnifying glass.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a call from base camp. Is Porter Cassel on board?
The pilot looks at me. I nod.
The two other members of the investigation team are at camp. I’m to report back for a briefing. The pilot looks at me and I mouth a question. How much fuel does he have left? The reply — two flashes of the hand — ten minutes. I consider, shake my head. The fire is growing, with men and heavy equipment being deployed at the rear, which will make my job exponentially more difficult. “Can you drop me in that cutblock over there?”
The pilot hesitates. “You got a radio?”
I nod; my gear is stowed on the rear seat. As we descend, the fire seems to grow rapidly in size. The pilot takes a few minutes to pick a safe landing spot and I climb out amid a rotorwash windstorm of ash and flinging bits of charcoal, hunker down with my eyes closed. A minute later the machine augers away toward base camp, leaving me alone in the black.
On the ground, the fire is no longer a serene abstraction. I’m in a wasteland at the rear of the battle, my strategic view replaced by a limited vista of charred stumps and tendrils of rising smoke. The air is hot, acrid and hazy, filled with the pungent scent of burned wood and moss. Visibility is down to several hundred yards. I slip on coveralls and a hardhat, check my radio, shoulder my pack and take a good look at the ground.
A fire is like an animal. It is born, feeds, travels and eventually perishes. And, like an animal, it can be tracked. The beast always travels outward from its point of origin, its behaviour modified by weather, fuels and topography. As it travels, it leaves clues that can be read, like a series of arrows that point to where it has been. One clue taken out of context can be meaningless but the indicators taken together are unmistakable.
The faint whine of approaching heavy equipment floats on the breeze. Cats on a flanking action cutting fire guard. Soon, dozers and men dragging hose will obliterate the finer clues. I must work quickly.
White ash imprints like the chalk outlines of a crime scene are all that remain of the logging slash in the cutblock. The fire here was very hot, indicating the origin is still some distance away. I underestimated the rate of spread and should have had the pilot drop me closer to the rear of the burn. But even here there are clues. The smouldering stumps have bowl-shaped burns, deeper in the direction from which the fire has come.
I walk northeast across the cutblock. I’m wearing new work-boots, trying to break them in; it’s working more the other way — my shins and arches are already aching. There comes a not-sodistant thud of metal hitting wood, followed by a deep growl and the crash of falling trees. The Cats are closer and I begin to run, ash rising behind me in a powdery cloud like the wake of a truck travelling down a dusty road. Overhead, water bombers rumble and swoosh. At the edge of the cutblock I pause, check my mental map of the area.
It’s easy to become disoriented with a fire this size but from what I remember there are a dozen more cutblocks in this direction, each separated by rectangles of uncut forest. The quickest route is through an uncut patch ahead of me but I’m not crazy about wandering through the stand of immense trees. With their roots burned out beneath them, the trees are balancing like some world record attempt. As if to underscore my concern, a tree topples, taking a dozen more with it as it falls.
I try not to think about it as I enter the stand.
The burn pattern in the treetops and scorch marks on the trunks tell me I’m travelling in the right direction, getting closer to the origin. Once in the open safety of the next cutblock, I breathe easier and examine the ground as my boots stir ash as fine as talcum powder, crunch over blackened debris. The unburned shadow of logs lying on the ground and scorch patterns on exposed rock indicate a fast, wind-driven fire. I cross a dusty logging road and all signs of fire direction are reversed. Here the fire backed into the wind. I’ve crossed the origin line.
I return to the road, look around.
Smoke drifts along the ground. Along one side of the road are a series of shallow depressions like bomb blasts filled with fine grey ash — the remnants of brushpiles where loggers heaped together treetops and branches. The piles were probably burned this past winter and one of them wasn’t properly extinguished. A wind came up and a forest fire was born. I walk along the road, shaking my head at this carelessness. The timber company that allowed this sloppy work has learned the hard way. A good chunk of its forest is gone. For confirmation, I use my hand-held radio to call base camp.
“Where the hell are you?” comes the reply.
“I’m in the blocks —”
“— have been waiting for you for a goddamn hour.”
The problem with these radios — you have to wait for the other guy to stop swearing before you can talk. Etiquette is important for ensuring everyone gets a chance to communicate. Patience is a bonus; tempers tend to get short under pressure. “Were these piles burned last winter?”
An annoyed pause; other radios murmur in the background. “What?”
“The piles in these blocks, when were they burned?”
“Uhh ... stand by one.”
I wait, walk along the road, inspect craters that used to be piles — the intensity of the fire burned the organic matter out of the soil. A group of firefighters trudge past, Natives carrying rolls of hose, their fresh orange coveralls streaked black. When I supervised these crews, it was easy to see who wasn’t working — just look for the guy with clean coveralls. Or black marks that looked suspiciously like handprints. The burn pattern on the ground catches my attention in one area and I spend some time using a stick to rake the ash in several craters.
Nothing. I move on. The ash in the craters is deep. At the fourth site the stick catches something, flipping it out of the ash like a fish rising from the surface of a pond. It’s a small square metal pan, like the type used for baking, but this one wasn’t used for brownies. In the past two years, I’ve seen a pan like this several times. Someone is lighting fires when the hazard is at its most extreme — someone we’ve been unable to identify. The arsonist is careful and the heat of the fire isn’t kind to what little evidence remains. Bootprints are wiped out by ground fire and the pan can’t be fingerprinted after it’s been scorched black by heat. To complicate matters, the other sites were hopelessly contaminated by firefighters. And it doesn’t help that I’ve flipped this pan over, knocking out any residue.
I call base camp again.
“What?” The voice on the other end has forgotten about me.
“The brush piles in the blocks?”
“Oh — right. Stand by one.”
A few minutes later, I get a response. The piles were never burned.