A close brush with disaster

"Fire! The smokehouse is burning!" Tom's eyes are wide with fear as he races outside. Sam and I jump up, tipping over the Monopoly board, my pulse thudding heavily in my ears.

“Fire! The smokehouse is burning!” Tom’s eyes are wide with fear as he races outside. Sam and I jump up, tipping over the Monopoly board, my pulse thudding heavily in my ears.

Sam tears open the door and then I see it: bright yellow flames reaching for the trees and belching dark smoke up into the air, the black skeleton of our smokehouse transformed into a live, moving creature.

Fear claws at my throat. No fire department will rush to our immediate rescue, out here in the bush. Within seconds, our lazy morning of playing Monopoly with Tom keeping a leisurely eye on the trout he was smoking has transformed into a nightmare. The cabin and everything we need to live on might get ripped away.

Tom hops helplessly around the crackling smokehouse, a lumber structure no larger than an outhouse. Sam snaps into action and throws a shovel at Tom: “Beat out the sparks and coals around it! We need water buckets – Lisa, get the fire extinguishers!”

I rush back into the cabin and push our two water buckets at Sam, one full, the other one with only a sip left in it. Fire extinguishers next, two of them from the cabin and one from the sauna. I gulp for air as I run to the creek with a bucket, my fastest speed woefully slow.

Tom abandons his shovel and we form a two-person bucket brigade while Sam shoots fire extinguishing foam at the flames and at the ground around the smokehouse. Spitting sparks, the structure collapses with a groaning creak. Flames leap into the sky for a moment, then crumble to the ground and twitch across the black heap that used to be our smokehouse.

Slowly, the water and foam seem to have an impact. The fire hisses defensively when I empty more water on it. Sam catches my wild stare and tries to reassure me. “Hey, we’re beating it! We’ll be OK, good thing it rained a couple days ago.” I nod and scan the surrounding trees for signs of fire, still shell-shocked that this could happen to us. It’s not just the risk to our cabin that has turned my stomach, it’s the guilt of having put at risk the forest that sustains us and all those animal lives within it.

Our cabin was built from the trees right here, Sam milled the lumber for the smokehouse from them as well. The moose we eat feed on these willows, bears are fattening up on the soapberries, the medicinal plants we use thrive here, and our garden is carved from this very soil. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship. People may come and go, economies go boom and bust, but the land is always there for us. And we almost harmed it.

Smoke wafts into the air as the last flames sputter out. My legs are weak from running with buckets and ebbing adrenaline. We mill around the sizzling ashes, held captive by what might have been, and speak in hoarse voices. “It’s out. Good thing you checked on the smokehouse, Tom.”

“How can you build a smokehouse out of wood?”

“You use what’s on hand out here. You just have to keep an eye on it. You should have…”.

“Are there really no hot spots left anywhere?”

“Thank God we had rain recently.”

Eventually, we drift back to the cabin, our minds still grappling with the fire. The image of the blackened smokehouse belching out bright flames seems to be superimposed on everything I look at. Sam is able to switch gears more easily. “Oh well, nothing really happened. I wanted to build a better one anyway; I guess now I have to.”

Our friend Tom, only recently worried about a bear leaning against his tent and now baptized by fire, shakes his head. “I don’t know, I mean it’s really beautiful here and pretty cool to live like this, but I don’t think I could do it as a permanent thing.”

I explain that normally, it’s not that exciting. Not by a far stretch. Sam nods and adds: “Well, I guess we have go fishing again tomorrow. You really smoked this trout beyond all reason, Tom.”

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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