Fire in the woods

Pioneer Ranch

Pioneer Ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region

It takes so long to shake off the newcomer designation in a rural community. And it takes so little to make it stick like glue. We added some glue early in our stay in Cariboo.

Pioneer Ranch lies on one of the historic grassy openings that attracted cattle drovers headed for the Cariboo goldfields. Our quarter section was mostly pasture land, ringed by gentle hills. The timbered southwest corner was our own private forest, a magical woodland with fences regularly trampled by moose, deer, bears and the neighbours’ errant cattle.

One night, around November of our first year on the ranch, I drew the short straw. That meant it was my turn to do the last check on our menagerie of chickens, sheep, cows, pigs, geese, goats and one cranky horse.

The air was still, the sky so full of stars I needed no flashlight as I walked the dark path to the barnyard. The animals were bedded down and ignored me as I wandered among them.

As I started back to the house, an unusual light in the southwest woods caught my eye. When I stopped to take a better look, I recognized the unmistakable flicker of fire. That small stand of old timber was precious to us. I have always loved trees, but my husband viewed them as a standing gold mine, not obscene wealth but at least the promise of a new tractor or some cows sometime in the future.

I raced to the house. “Fire! Fire!”

My husband and his son hopped on the tractor, grabbed shovels and chain saws and motored across the field and up the hill. My task was to phone everyone we knew within a ten-mile radius. In a rural area, that is not a crowd, but we figured if enough people showed up we could at least keep the fire contained. We also figured, since it was after eleven, everyone I called would be in bed.

We were still pretty much strangers, but no one hesitated. They grabbed tools, jumped in their cars and converged on the ranch. When they saw where the fire was, they raced to a side road and rushed to the fire.

This was before the era of cell phones. The first people to arrive had no way of letting the others know they could scrap the operation and head back to their beds.

What they found was an eccentric neighbour, violating the fire ban to burn a huge pile of scrap wood. He knew the conservation officer, who would have issued him a ticket, never drove by that time of the night. So he waited until full dark and until anyone who might have gone into town for a movie or dinner with friends would be back home. Then he struck a match and started his fire. He figured he could keep it contained and did not give a fig for rules.

What stays with me nearly twenty years later is how gracious everyone was. No one ever chided us for the false alarm. They all said we had done the right thing by calling for help.

The incident became part of local folklore, a joke on the new people, the townies who did not yet know the people around them. But we learned an important lesson that night. When you live beyond the reach of the nearest fire department, the only reliable insurance you have is good neighbours, and we had them.

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4 comments for “Fire in the woods

  1. September 16, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Great story, thanks Cathryn. The Chilcotin and Cariboo people are a special breed and especially neighborly.

  2. September 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Wow, that must have been scary.

    I’m so glad it was a false alarm, and I’ll bet your neighbour never tried that again! 🙂

  3. October 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Ummm…some neighbours figure rules are for other people, but we really did win the lottery in terms of most of those around us.

  4. October 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    You’re right, Sterling, and once you get past the newcomer stage, they can’t do enough for you. (And even during the newcomer stage, they are very helpful.)

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