This past summer we experienced the driest May on record. June wasn’t much better coming in as our fifth driest since we’ve been keeping tabs. As little as 0.4mm of rain fell in Saskatchewan in May, our average is a much wetter 40.2mm. With this little amount of rain it was no surprise we had one of the most intense fire seasons in Saskatchewan's history.
There weren’t too many people in Saskatchewan during the beginning of summer that didn’t experience the choking smoke that covered the province. There were over a 100 fires that burned their way across the boreal forest. The fires forced the evacuation of over 5,000 people and mobilized 600 firefighters and 200 support people just to try and battle the blazes. It was truly a summer of extremes.
I recently sat down with a great friend of mine Adam Pegg, whose family owns a cabin in the South Bay of Nemeiben Lake. We discussed the forest fires that caused extensive damage to the Nemeiben Lake Provincial Park and claimed 23 of his neighbours cabins.
Adam and his family spent weeks fighting to keep their cabin from burning to the ground.
This is a story that we haven't gotten to hear - the story of one family fighting the unstoppable force of mather nature.
Adam’s family purchased their cabin in 2007, at the time it was a small one room cabin with a tiny loft for more beds. It rests on the shores of a peninsula on Nemeiben Lake, which is located roughly 30 minutes north of La Ronge. When you visit their cabin you get the opportunity to leave the world behind as it is a 30 minute boat ride from the Nemeiben Provincial Park dock to their door step. This means you need to bring everything with you food, gas, water, etc and if something happens you aren’t a quick drive to the hospital.
However, his family wouldn’t have it any other way – I myself have visited the cabin numerous times and it will always hold a special place in my heart. You are truly free to do what you wish while enjoying the beauty of northern Saskatchewan.
Over the years they have built the cabin into a cozy place to visit. They have added a large addition to the cabin almost more than doubling the floor space. They have installed creature comforts like a solar powered water heater so you can have a warm shower and have built numerous walking and hiking trails that venture deep into the forest.
Adam remembers visiting the cabin in June and immediately noticing how dry the forest was, “The forest near our cabin is covered in a thick moss bed, normally when you walk on it is like walking on carpet. Since it was so dry the moss was cracking under our feet when we walked it left clear foot prints. The forest was thirsty for a drink.”
“The family wanted to have some time to enjoy the cabin so we took time off work to kick summer off. However, the morning of Monday June 7 an intense lightning storm rolled through and we knew that it wasn’t going to be good,” Adam remarked.
With the lack of rain in the north and with such an intense thunderstorm rolling through – it was only a matter of time before fires started. As the lightning bolts struck the trees they sparked a forest fire that wouldn’t be contained for weeks.
“We woke up the next morning and learned that some fires had been started on the north end of the lake. We started looking for more information and checking satellite reports and could see that there were actually two fires that had started that day. However, we were relieved to see that they were quite a distance from where our cabin is. We figured that we would be safe.”
“We later found out that one of our friends on the lake had already lost their cabin within the first 24 hours of the fire starting. As we continued to keep our eyes peeled to the radar and reports we started to notice that the two fires were beginning to both move towards our direction. The first fire began to move south and the second fire began to move east.”
The smoke had started to billow into where Adam’s family cabin resides, which only meant that the wind was coming in the right or wrong direction (depending on how you look at it. ) The fires were picking up in intensity as they consumed the matchbox dry trees in the dense boreal forest. Without any rain – there was nothing to stop the fires as they continued to spread.
“Once we noticed the fires were changing direction we knew we needed to prepare. It was all hands on deck as we began to make preparations to save the cabin. We have a water pump but we knew that one pump and one hose wasn’t enough. However, the great people at SERM showed up to our cabin with some help.”
SERM (Saskatchewan Department of Environment and Resource) are a part of the Ministry of Environment and are responsible for the environmental protection and sustainable management of wildlife, fish, forests and Crown lands.
“They brought us a bunch of more gear to help us fight the incoming fires. They provided us with a fire fighting grade water pump and sprinklers that we attached to two by fours and placed strategically around the cabin. We began pumping water non-stop from the lake trying desperately to create a fire barrier to keep the flames at bay.”
As Adam’s family began preparing the cabin for what was the inevitable they quickly realized they were going to need more supplies.
“We needed gas, food and other things to prepare – we knew we needed to make a supply run to La Ronge before things got worse. The roads could close at any moment and we needed to make it back to the mainland to get more gas to keep the pumps running. So we loaded up the boat and headed off.”
By this time the fires had reached within close proximity of their cabin – it wasn’t on their doorstep yet but the world around them was an inferno. The smoke was thick and ash was falling from the sky. There was an orange glow from the fires in the distance, signalling something much more ominous was coming their way.
“Thank god we had the GPS to get us back to the dock. The smoke was so thick it would have been impossible to get back without it. We were driving the boat blind. As we slowly made our way we could see the fire consuming more and more acres of forest. The wind was around 20km/hour that day and the forest was moving as quickly as the wind would carry it.”
By this point – the forest fires at Nemeiben Lake were out of control. Everyone knew that there was little that could be done to stop it unless it rained.
“The sound the trees make when they go up is something I will never forget. If you’ve ever thrown a dry tree branch into a bonfire and listen to the sound it makes as it quickly crackles, imagine that but thousands of them. We could hear the air rushing into the fires as if it was a hungry beast looking for food. It was incredible, awe-inspiring and terrifying all at the same time”
Adam’s family had now met their foe head on and could truly appreciate the unstoppable force that they were facing. With no rain in the forecast it was time to make a last ditch effort to save the cabin.
“Once we returned with our supplies and filled the water pumps with gas one last time, we knew we had to leave. There was little we could do anymore but hoped the cabin would still be there in the morning. The sprinklers were doing their best to keep our family’s dream alive.”
That night the family loaded up on the boat and looked at the cabin one last time, the fires were now dangerously close and it was time to leave.
“We took off to spend the night with relatives. I remember looking back at the cabin and hoped it wouldn't be the last time I saw it. We are all pretty somber as we all took one last look before it disappeared in the blanket of smoke.”
Adam’s family spent the night anxiously waiting to return in the morning to refill the gas in the water pumps. During the night the fires raged on turning the area into an apocalypse.
“The next day we returned and were greeted with the familiar green tin roof of the cabin as we pulled up to our dock. It had made the night but the fire had gotten as close as it possibly could. Those little sprinklers were the difference between coming back to nothing and the cabin still being there. We weren’t out of the woods yet though, we spent the whole day with water hoses putting out hotspots and working to keep the fire at bay. It was amazing the heat that was coming from the fires, and how long we would douse an area with water and the fire still wouldn’t go out. It was a grueling day, but we felt like we were pushing it back.”
Unfortunately, Adam had to return to work soon and had to give up the effort for the cabin. His parents stayed behind to keep up the fight.
“My parents spent two weeks, of what was supposed to be their summer vacation, fighting forest fires. They would alternate sleeping every 2 hours to wake up and check to make sure that the pumps were still running and that there were no hotspots that were dangerous. Some other cabin owners were sleeping on their boats at night and returning in the morning to continue fighting the blazes. SERM often came by with supplies to keep things going and the whole community of people on the lake pitched in providing food, gas and shelter for those who needed it. It truly was the best example of people coming together to help each other out. My parents came home after those two weeks exhausted but we had won, we had beaten the forest fires and kept our family’s dream intact.”
Through the hard work of SERM, forest fighters and the community and a little bit of rain the forest fires eventually receded and were snuffed out. It was a monumental effort by all those involved. Unfortunately, 23 cabins were lost to the fires.
“We often think of ourselves as masters of our own domain. Modern society removes us from the power of mother nature, but when she decides it is time for you to move out of the way, you better move out of the way. While we worked desperately to save our cabin, we knew it wasn’t worth our lives. You can always rebuild a lost home, you can’t rebuild a lost family member.”
The forest fires of 2015 will go down some of the most destructive in our provinces recorded history. The strength and ferocity at which they burned and the amount of acres lost is almost unequaled.
However, we must remember that forest fires are a natural part of the life cycle. The forest must burn in order to stay healthy, as it removes old and diseased trees and returns valuable nutrients to the soil.
I was able to visit Adam’s cabin later that summer after the forest fires had rolled through and surveyed the damage. What you will be surprised by even though the tall trees are black and lifeless an explosion of green takes over the forest floor as fireweed and other plants begin their new life.
Don’t think of it as the end – think of it as rebirth.
Adam and his family would like to thank all those who helped them in their time of need. Especially the support they received from the Ministry of Environment and the community of cabin owners.
All photos provided by Adam Pegg.
Do you have your own story about the Saskatchewan forest fires of 2015? Share them with SaskHiker below!