inferno reveals our true priorities

Around here the weather has been a phenomenon. We're sitting in the middle of BC's Interior and there hasn't been a break from the heat.

Around here the weather has been a phenomenon.

We’re sitting in the middle of BC’s Interior and there hasn’t been a break from the heat. Every day morning breaks on skies that are clear and air that hasn’t seemed to move since spring busted up the winter clouds. The grass is brown and tinder dry. Even the birds seem prone to sit in the shade of branches so that in the mid-afternoons there is a stillness that is eerie.

We bend to the radio and TV news awaiting word of the lightning strike or careless camper that will turn things into an inferno. A short drive away there have been evacuations and the cleft the lake sits in is smudged with the drifting smoke from those fires. Flying in from a speaking engagement in Manitoba this week, the land could not be seen from the air for the drifting pall of smoke.

Understandably, people are nervous. They don’t show it. They won’t speak of it. They merely grin and wave at each other and fan away at the cloud of dust from the gravel road and mime a wiping away of heat and sweat. But you can tell the threat of a blaze rests heavy on their minds. Across BC there isn’t a community anywhere that isn’t edgy and anxious. This is the worst summer in our history. The stultifying heat and the dry conditions in the trees is dangerous. Everyone feels that.

So when there was a fire on a nearby mountain our community went on high alert. The fire risk has been extreme for a month now and it was only six years ago that horrendous fires swept through this part of the Interior and devastated everything. People have trouble forgetting things like that. The recollection of it smoulders in your memory a long, long time, and the heat of this summer brought those memories even closer.

So when the heat lightning struck the mountain and tell-tale spirals of smoke curled up, everyone was anxious. We drove down to the lakefront and neighbours sat out on their docks eying the smoke and the helicopters that appeared to survey the situation. No one moved. We watched as the choppers skimmed the lake and filled their tanks. Then we prayed silently as the spume washed down over the stricken forest. A plane dumped retardant and the chopper set down a small crew. We waited.

There were reports of other blazes on nearby hills. Cars and pickups rumbled down the road to investigate and people exchanged the bits of news that came back.

For us, they were tense hours. We have come to love our home in the mountains and the idea of losing it to fire was hard. The painting we did this year made it look new again. The renovations we’ve done in the past four years have given it a new soul. We’ve found the expression of ourselves here. So when it looked like the possibility was dire we began to make a plan.

The first thing was to protect our vital papers. Then we saved our computer files to disk. We took photos of everything in the house for insurance purposes. As I did that, Debra packed a suitcase with clothes and things we’d need if we were evacuated.

As we pared down the list of things that were vital to us down, it occurred to us that we actually needed very little. Sure, the house was filled with stuff: furniture, a stereo and a music collection that is my pride, a television, art, books, music and all the other usual accoutrements of living – but what we really needed, what was elemental to our survival and our ability to carry on, what was truly valuable to us, was small.

Our wedding pictures, legal documents, personal keepsakes, notes to each other, and reminders of the life we cleaved out of circumstance were the first things in the bags. In the end there were three and that says something. It points to things of the heart. It points to the idea that what matters in this life are not the big, shiny expensive things we deem essential. What matters are the things that come to rest in our hearts and minds. The keepsakes and the treasures we cling to and need most when times are hard. In the end, those are the things that count. Those are the things that make life worthwhile.

The fire never caught. Heavy rain came and doused things. We woke in the morning to a fresh, beautiful world, safe and predictable. But as I stared at the bags beside the door I offered thanks for the lesson – that the things we keep, the things that make this journey valuable are the things of the heart, irreplaceable and precious. Treasures.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at