Wildfires 2023: 1 person’s account

Photos are supplied by Emily Plihal and taken near her farm at Reno.

Emily Plihal
Local Journalism
Initiative Reporter

I have never experienced such fear as I did the last couple of weeks watching fire engulf thousands of acres of trees close to my land near Reno.

As a professional outfitter, I was out bear baiting in the first couple weeks of April and recognized the lack of moisture we had in the bush. My dad and I discussed the possible threats if we did not get moisture in the latter part of the month.

As weeks progressed, no precipitation was realized, and soaring temperatures dried out the minimal winter runoff in the bush, we feared the bush was becoming kindling. We vastly changed our methodologies preparing for our spring clients, recognizing how dry it was in the bush. Anyone who lives in our region and spends considerable time in the outdoors knew how little moisture we had this winter and that the exceptionally hot spring weather would pose threats to not only our area, but the majority of Alberta.

The fire that started near Peavine on May 5, managed to make its way just a few kilometres directly east of my property on the first night. The southeast wind was forceful and pushed the fire through the dry bush in just a matter of a couple of hours.

As I watched the fire progress quickly, the realization it could venture further west was weighing on me.

I own a small herd of cows, many of them are my pets and not just cattle, and most of them were still due to calf. Knowing that trying to herd them without a proper handling system in place during an emergency would be short of a miracle, a plan had to be put in place to protect them should the wind switch to the east.

In just a few short hours, the fire managed to engulf the entire skyline to the east of my property. As I quickly learned that night, it is very hard to determine how far away the blaze is in the night hours. I decided to sleep in my truck (well, technically just sit in it and stare at the fire in the horizon) in the cow pasture that night, knowing that if that fire was to spread, I would have to take quick action and try to move the girls.

Unbelievably, the wind still blew violently from the southeast (not a predominant spring wind in our part of the province) through the night and into the next day. Luckily, a friend and neighbour of mine, recognized the threat they were facing and managed to move all their animals out of harm’s way. My neighbour ended up losing some of her trees and fence, but the home was saved. By Saturday night the fire had spread throughout the Crown area east of the hamlet of Reno, and across many of my neighbours’ land and – unfortunately – claiming one of my neighbour’s homes. Other neighbours had livestock fences burned, shops and garages burned, equipment burned, and lots of their trees engulfed.

Watching the fire so close to home and being unable to do anything about it was one of the worst feelings I’ve experienced. The Northern Sunrise County fire crews, along with neighbouring M.D. of Smoky River firefighters, worked tirelessly to try to save the homes bordering the Crown land, as the ferocious fire spread quickly.

It’s an unbearable feeling knowing if you hope the wind doesn’t change direction, so that it doesn’t come your way, that it will inevitably take out one of your neighbours in its path instead. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the level of heartbreak as seeing an evacuation notice for people just a couple township roads away from me. Each time my phone would ping with a new Voyent Alert, I cringed with fear knowing that more people could be losing their homes, and there was nothing I could do to help.

In addition, as I watched the fire in the distance, I knew that much of the hunting territory that I have spent time in over the 22 years of my guiding career was likely going up in smoke. The true heartache was knowing that there were thousands of animals, birds and other organisms of all sizes that would not be able to outrun the fire.

Indeed, the second night of fire also burned seven of our hunting stands that we’ve used for decades. In perspective, I understand that they are “just hunting stands” and they are not near as important as the loss of wild animals and loss my neighbours suffered. It still didn’t make it emotionally much easier as memories from my career flooded back to me, memories of the time dad and I spent preparing for our hunts, memories with my favourite clients, and my memories of time I’d spend in that area reflecting on what is truly important to me in life.

Some may attend church; my utopia is nature.

We made the executive decision after the first few days of fires to cancel all of our contracted bear hunts for the spring. Even had the fires subsided, putting extra pressure on animals that were already stressed is not humane.

The fires blazed new trails to the northeast of Reno, extending into the Harmon Valley area. Even as it spread north, one could see the fires taking no mercy on all the dry timber to the east of us. It was unbelievable to watch fires in every direction, not knowing which direction the wind would come from next and where the fires would spread, and who it would hurt next.

It’s uncanny how self absorbed one becomes, simply checking on neighbours and one’s own property. It’s almost like the world outside doesn’t exist and you cannot process all the devastation happening all around.

The constant work to use water pumps to try to spray around high-risk areas, tractor work to disc up perimeter areas to create a fire break, moving any combustible items, moving hay to safe areas so it doesn’t burn, creating a safe area to move livestock, it’s overwhelming and makes one forget about the other life around.

Some tension relief came as the week progressed, the winds were not as forceful, and the fires didn’t seem to be spreading near as fast. One still had to stay vigilant and attentive.

But then as there was a slight relief in our area, I was able to process the loss around us. Valleyview and its surrounding area, County of Grande Prairie, Slave Lake’s area, so many First Nations Reserves and other communities were being evacuated, many people losing everything. I’ve never been
more proud of the various Family and Community Support Services people from each community as I have been through these wildfires. My hat goes off to the two directors I personally know, Crystal Tremblay from Smoky River region and Amber Houle from Northern Sunrise County, and all their staff.

In addition, each FCSS in the province that created evacuation centres, helped people register for the various assistance programs, and helped people navigate all the mental health angst they were and will continue to experience.

As the following weekend approached, May long weekend, the winds started to push the fire back from the north. For three days straight, helicopters and water bombers flew over a neighbour’s house that was all of a sudden at risk again. Just one mile from me as the crow flies, the fire looked like it would take us all out. The fire crews did incredible work building fire breaks and doing controlled burns to prevent the fire from burning my neighbour’s house, and from spreading west.

I don’t think I will ever be able to express in words quite what it was like watching these crews (from a distance and out of their way) redirect a raging fire back onto itself. I have no doubt in my mind that their efforts helped to save all the homes on my road.

Of course, fire has its own plan and it decided to sneak up again later that week one mile south of me on a friend’s land. He texted me a picture to show some hot spots on a creek that leads to my land. That night, Forestry had ground firefighters on the creek, a crew of cats and nodwells came in create a fire break, but because of the incredible smoke in the air no air crew could work on the fire.

Again, for about the sixth or seventh time in the two weeks, I chose to sleep at my farm, not in the cabin but in my truck. All night I watched embers from the fire fall, sure that I would have to evacuate. The crews’ work managed to keep the fire at bay on the west side, but it decided to spread south of a lake and trying to make its way all the way to the next county’s borders.

And then the beautiful rain came.

On May 22, dad and I were able to go check out one area that we have multiple bear stands in. The entire area was ravaged by fire, and although some of the areas we have used for 40+ years are fire free; the devastation was clear and absolutely gutted us as we saw what the wildlife had to experience.

I walked into one stand that looked like it may be burned, climbing over trees that had been burned and had fallen into the cutline. When I got into the stand, it was clear some of the area had been torched and some not. As I approached our tree stand, I saw movement in the tree and looked up to see a bear who had found a place to sleep on our platform. I quickly retracted so it wouldn’t be pressured.

Knowing the hell that animal had to have gone through, not to mention the hundreds of others in the same position as it, absolutely tore us up.

Trees from six kilometres into the bush in that area to roughly 30 kilometres east were devastated. The environment has been altered drastically and many animals will have had to flee to find new homes.

As the rain thankfully fell throughout the long weekend, I reflected a lot on all the stress that I felt through the two weeks. Although I’ve been asked to share my experience through the last few weeks, it’s really hard to regurgitate all the emotions you’ve just lived. It’s really strange how your brain works as you’re trying to find ways to protect what you’ve built through your life, and trying to process what could happen if it all was burned.

And the reality is that although I lived through fear, some of our neighbours in our community and in
many other Alberta communities were not as fortunate as I.

Perhaps the hardest lesson that I learned through this experience is the incredible fear that people who have lost everything must feel. My heart goes out to each and every individual and family who have lost property, livestock, pets, homes, or anything else through these horrible wildfires.

Rereading what I’ve written, it seems trivial knowing that I am coming out of this virtually unscathed but that many people didn’t. Although the dread is starting to dissipate, it was so terrifying for 16 days and I know that we are not yet out of danger. 108,000 hectares of land (nearly 420 square miles for my friends that don’t think in metric) was torched just in our Peavine-Harmon Valley Fire.

I haven’t started to even look at the complete picture in our area or the areas adjacent to us suffering the same fate.

I strongly urge anyone who needs any type of help to visit their local FCSS office to get help navigating this horrible time.

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