To say it’s overwhelming is an understatement.
The Richardson wildfire ripped through Northern Alberta, burning up a chunk of forest the size of one-and-a-half Prince Edward Islands. A handful of days after the fire ripped through and here I am standing right smack dab in the middle of it. Blackened trees stretch as far as the eye can see, like big black smokestacks jutting out from the blackened earth, ready to fall with one wrong nudge. The smell of campfire creeps through the sky, latching onto our clothes, our hair, everything.
Firefighters have been here for weeks just buried in this blackness, constantly scanning their eyes over the ground, looking for a sign that the ground underneath is burning.
Because, oh hey, it is burning.
Sometimes it’s up to 2 metres underground. By the end of the day, I’m even spotting them. Hotspots, as they’re called. The ash pattern is different in one spot on the ground. Or you just feel the heat radiating through your boot. I’ll point out what I think is a hotspot burning in the forest. The firefighters come over and punch their hands into the ground. If it is, in fact, a hotspot, they rip their hand out, shake off the heat, and call for water.
All in a day’s work, right?
I wasn’t even supposed to be here.
I was supposed to be in Cold Lake, Alberta, testing gun systems on helicopters with the Canadian Military. But when that story fell through the day before I left to head westwards, I had to find something to fill that gap. I was still scratching my head when I got off the plane in Edmonton and wondered aloud “Why is it so foggy around here?”
A lady turned to me with a raised eyebrow: “That’s from the fires.”
The next day, after spending 12 hours chasing Grizzly bears through the foothills of the Rocky mountains, I got to work. I found a team flying over the wildfires, doing aerial mapping of the hotpspots burning below. While driving the 9 hours from Hinton to Fort McMurray, I made over a dozen phone calls and set the wheels in motion. By the time we arrived in the north, it was set. Just 28 hours later we met up with the crew at the Fort McMurray airport. Suddenly it’s 4:00 a.m and we’re flying in the far north, taking heat scans to see where the earth is still burning.
Even from up in the air, we could see the blackness below.
We flew, and flew, and flew, and it just never stopped. Some trees survived, I was told, because they were a different species. Or they lucked out, and the wind changed before the flames could take hold. I knew I wanted to be down there, on the ground. I woke up my Ontario team two timezones ahead of us, and got them to get us in with the Alberta Government.
And that’s how, the next morning, we are up and at ’em with Canada’s top firefighters.
We start our trek bright and early, at 5:00 a.m. Because we’re in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the sun is already shining bright, egging us on to get our butts in gear. And no matter how tired me and my crew are, when we show up at the camp site about 100 km north of nowhere, we know we can’t complain.
The firefighters are divvied up by province. Alberta firefighters have their tents in one area, Ontario firefighters are off in another. We sit through the safety briefing, listening as the guys get their orders, splitting up sections of the forest for their massive scavenger hunt of the day.
I say guys; they’re kids, mostly. The ones I talk to – Tony, Baywatch, Neil – they’re all 19, 20 years old. But they’re all excited to show us around, to show us what they do. And we’re excited to see what they do. We join the convoy of firefighters and head even further North into the blackness.
That’s how I find myself in the middle of the Boreal forest, a chainsaw roaring to the left of me, trees falling to my right, sweating in my standard-issue coveralls in the mid-summer heat, trying to lug a wide angle lens and a Radio Shack’s worth of batteries without letting anything touch anything burned; all while trying to do my job by asking the right questions of the right people and getting the right footage I need to build my story.
All in a day’s work… right?
It took us 26 hours of shooting over 2 days to get this story, and trust me when I say it was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.