When I was in kindergarten I was evacuated from a forest fire.
We knew it was coming – the forest had been on fire for weeks, the news coming through the radio waves and the smell of smoke in the air. We knew it was a matter of time before the call would come to get out of Sioux Lookout and head west to Dryden.
What do you do though, when you are 5 years old and you’re waiting for the call to go? You pack.
My mother gave me a twelve quart basket. The sort of old fashioned wooden basket that peach and grapes came in back in the day, when your mother or grandmother would ‘put fruit down’ in the late summer.
Giving me that basket to pack was brilliant. It gave me some agency in an otherwise uncontrollable situation. For two weeks I slept with my packed basket beside me. It held my pajamas, my Bible, my toothbrush and comb and one set of clothes all folded and tucked in ready to grab and run when the call came.
That day arrived. We were to leave immediately. My mom drove the Land Rover with me, my three year old sister Mary and our newborn sister Lydia to stay with a family of friendly strangers who had opened their door to families from areas that were being evacuated. They were Mennonites, who I later learned traditionally say grace at the end of the meal. I remember being appalled when they sat down to eat and began, without saying a prayer first.
My father was Superintendent of Education for Indian Affairs for the northwestern part of the province. In the 60’s the government was well aware of the damage being done by residential schools, though in some cases it took almost another 40 years to close the last residential school for Native students in Canada. My dad’s job was to hire teachers for the new public schools that were being built in each reserve. My dad would fly into the north from Sioux Lookout – sometimes to bring teachers out who were ‘bushed’, but mostly to ‘superintend’. Anyone my age and older will remember when the school superintendent would sit in on a class every now and then to see how teachers were managing classes and teaching students. (Like ‘duds’ wouldn’t pull out their best lesson plan for that day…)
Dad was really busy making sure the kids who were at the residential school in Hudson got out safely. They, the elderly people in the nursing home in Sioux Lookout, and those who were admitted to hospital and couldn’t be discharged to family were loaded on freight cars and moved out of harm’s way via the CNR line, headed due west from town.
So Mom was on her own. But I was ready. I ran with my basket and my sister Mary and climbed into the vehicle. My mom came running with my sister Lydia in a bassinet and ran back to the house for something. She came out with a laundry basket of cloth diapers. And that was all. In the hubbub of everyday life, nothing else had been prepared for our evacuation. But my mom was happy to a least have clean diapers – it could have been far worse.
We joined the line of vehicles heading south on Hwy 72 for the hour and half drive to Dryden. The drive was very exciting for a five year old – out my side window of the jeep the trees were ablaze, on the other side of the highway was deep, verdant forest. I remember my mother was concerned about the amount of gas we had in our tank – to run out of gas in that stretch of highway could have been perilous.
Dad joined us the next day and we spent a few nights with our new friends.
What stayed with me was, a profound fear of fire (which my parents tried to ‘fix’ by having me be in charge of the burning barrel – which lead to another fire incident when I decided to burn the long grass around our horse corral, but that’s another story), and a Girl Guide like need to be prepared for anything.
If you ask me if I’d like to eat by candlelight, I’ll thank you but ask that we keep the lights on. I’ll tell you I prefer to see what I’m eating, but now you know what’s really going on. I’d be ok if I had my 12 quart basket beside me, but I rarely have it at mealtimes.
- Beth Sheffield