Tuesday, April 27, 2010

gremlins and the king of the world

As they promised, Environment Canada threatened or bribed or cajoled the weather gremlins into smiling upon us and sending rain today. And tomorrow. And Saturday. And Sunday. And Monday. That's the problem with those gremlins. The word "moderation" doesn't exist in their language. It's all sun and cloudless and dry until the poplars are ready to shrivel up and blow away in the wind, then it's rain upon rain until I'm digging out my manual on 302 easy steps to build a replica of Noah's ark.

Someday when I am king of the world, I'll straighten the weather out. I know, it's a tall order, but somebody's got to do it.

We did get our fair share of grass/brush/forest fires in before the rain hit. And a cord wood fire. I suspect only those living in the far-flung peripheral edge of the universe have cord wood fires. They start when a roguish spark escapes from an outdoor wood stove chimney and lands in just the right spot to smoulder unnoticed until just the right moment to go poof, and all your hard-earned firewood is in flames before it ever makes it through the door of the stove.

Some cord wood fires are spectacular. Years ago, we were paged to a kiln fire, with lots of cords of birch firewood burning inside. Imagine the Jolly Green Giant's fireplace on a cold January morning, and you might get the idea. When the kiln burned a second time, the intrepid owners decided to build a a bigger, better one . . . large enough to
blacken his bright green tunic and singe his eyebrows if it caught fire. They asked my opinion as the Chief Fire Official Who Is Supposed To Know These Things, and the cautious voice of experience (which suits my personality better) said, "Whatever you do, put a Storz connector on the outside and hook it to the sprinklers inside, because if those gazillion cords of wood catch fire, I'm not opening the doors." I think it was Don Quixote that said, "Discretion is the better part of valour."

We actually responded to a small forest fire yesterday that wasn't extinguished by a vigilant homeowner or a firefighter-errant out doing good deeds and robbing us of our fair share of glory. It was big enough to be exciting for a brief moment, and small enough that we still got a good night's sleep after it was out. If there is such a thing as the perfect forest fire, that would be it.

Speaking of blazing things, some daredevil scientists in Livermore, California are planning to create a star using the world's largest laser. The plan is to solve the world's energy problems through nuclear fusion. If it works, they might seriously challenge my bid to become king of the world. If you put solving the world's weather problems up against solving the world's energy problems, there's a chance energy might win in our power-hungry world.

The trouble with amazing technologies like nuclear fusion is that they have the potential to solve all of our problems in an in one fiery blast. Maybe these guys should read Don Quixote.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

of weather gremlins and bureaucrats

Spring is all about firsts and lasts. The first flower. The first wildland fire. The first drumming grouse which foreshadows the first family of chicks to parade across your backyard. The first mosquito that you smack before she gets her first meal to start her first family.

The firsts are easy to define. The lasts aren't. You aren't ever quite sure which frost is the last. Or which snowfall. You always hope it was that dump you got in March, but you know from experience that it will snow in April and May too. Except this year, when the last snowfall came a week too early to qualify as the March Lion, and April has been as dry as August in Arabia. You can never tell though . . . snowstorms have a way of appearing out of thin air when you least expect them, especially in the spring.

One way to hasten the last snowfall is to put all of the mitts, boots, scarves, toques, and winter coats into their neat, tidy tubs, and store them deep in the crawl space under the house. We did that last weekend, and for good measure, I took the snow tires off the car and stored the snow shovels away. That's a sure way to flush out that last-minute blizzard that the weather gremlins are hiding away as a nasty spring surprise. Stay tuned, it's coming.

Last year I was still complaining about snow in the middle of May. By the third week of May, things were looking like they are right now in the last week of April. Maybe this is the year that Upsala will grow pineapples.

On May 2nd last year, I had an epic struggle with bureaucracy (nothing to do with weather gremlins and snowstorms, but bloggers are allowed to stray off topic). The great thing about the struggle was that I won, in true David vs Goliath style. Click here to read the exciting story.

Speaking of bureaucracy, that bane of fire chiefly existence came through again, and saved me from being topic-less a week before the deadline for my next CFF article. This time I wrestled the monster in its litigation disguise. Someone (I think Pittgirl) once said it helps to get slightly drunk before writing an article. I've never been drunk (contrary to what Andrew and Graham say) so I don't know if it works, but a few glasses of wine may have been helpful for this one.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crazy, but very true

When archaeologists excavate the Upsala Fire Hall a thousand years from now and read my day planner, they'll find this short, terse entry for March 4, 2009: "meet w/calendar fundraiser guy." An insignificant entry loaded with possibilities.

It's rare to find someone crazier than me, but Chad Sartison (the calendar guy) is indeed crazier than me . . . and that's about as high a compliment as I can pay anyone. He quit a good paying job, became a volunteer firefighter, and started a not-for-profit organization with a mantra to train, educate, and equip volunteer firefighters.

At this very instant, thirty volunteer firefighters are at FDIC on an all-expenses paid training excursion of a lifetime, courtesy of Chad's vision and dedication. I am so very jealous to be blogging about it rather experiencing it. The Fire Within, Chad's organization, also donates thousands of dollars worth of equipment to volunteer fire departments, on top of helping them raise money. Chad is a bright, burning light in a sector that has more than its fair share of dark and gloom.

A year ago in March, Chad hopped a plane on the spur of the moment and flew to Thunder Bay (which is in the suburbs of the edge of the universe). We had dinner together, followed by a meeting with my unenthusiastic Mutual Aid Association. The Fire Within's unique promotional strategy captured my imagination. Who ever heard of firefighters camping on the roof of the local department store to raise awareness about the fire service? The Heroes in the Sky event grabs media attention and gives firefighters an unmatched platform to educate the public and promote their service. The raising of thousands of dollars is almost a sideline.

The volunteer fire service is in trouble, and I complain every chance I get about the poor funding, and superb indifference directed toward these essential emergency service providers. Chad saw the problem did something about it.

I am not very persuasive. Sadly, I couldn't find enough crazy people from other departments to fly the calendar project here on the edge of the universe. I made one last ditch effort to persuade my board to go it alone, but I was blown out of the water. Now I'm making good on a promise to spread the word. If you are part of a volunteer department, contact The Fire Within. You may be able to get in on the 2011 calendar. If you need more persuading, read Firefighting in Canada's article on Chad and his work.

In 3011 when they find my day planner, I hope they say, "Wow! He met the guy that revitalized the volunteer fire service." To all you crazy people out there, get with the program!

Monday, April 19, 2010

various and sundries

It's the write-and-run season. The sun shines, the fire hazard is high, the evenings are lengthening, there is 27 hours worth of work to do in a 24 hour day. The up-side is that bloggers are allowed to write and run. It doesn't have to be polished or even cohesive. We can use titles like, "Random N'at" (That's Church), "Blogging, Netbooks, and Drinking . . . In No Particular Order," (Switch2PlanB) and "Beaches, Marvin the Martian, and other related topics," (me). And no one can stop us.

Bloggers are the rawboned cowboys of the wild west frontier of literature. We're allowed to shoot from the hip, and say what we think, and sing to the moon if we want. And then ride off into the the cyber-sunset on our digital horses and pretend we're footloose and fancy free. Until we wake up and realize that our next article is due in a couple weeks, and its current incoherent, ranting, raving, blog-style format is not going to cut it in the polished, published world. Or that our home to-do list is longer than the drive from the Texas range to the Kansas train yard, and our significant other is thinking dark thoughts about wringing our non-digital neck while we're ramble-writing. That's the down-side.

So, we write and run.

Speaking of writing, you can read my April article for the Fire and EMS Quarterly here.

And speaking of fires, the good fire-folk at Kam got to play with the big boys on Saturday.

Things have quieted down here in the far-flung peripheral edge, but there is no rain in the forecast, and it really doesn't take much to get the bush going these days. Rubbing the rabbit's foot and meditating on the longitudinal centre of Canada didn't work last time, and I still don't believe in knocking on wood, so I guess we'll just have to take things as they come.

Speaking of the wild-west frontier, the digital bronc busters at Microsoft are developing a system that uses your arms and hands as a keyboard. Snap your fingers and answer your phone. Tap your arm to start the next track of music. The next thing you know, they'll type a digital 666 in your forehead . . . now I'm really rambling.

Totally unrelated to fires and frontiers, George Washington, the epitome of trustworthiness and honesty, has a deep dark secret. He failed to return two library books, and owes 220 years worth of late fees.

And with that piece of useless trivia . . . I have to run.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Green up is possibly starting, but it's hard to tell for sure. A green shadow has appeared in a few places, kind of like the five o'clock shadow that isn't really a beard, but isn't really clean shaven either. Actually, in this case, it's like the peach fuzz on a 13 year-old . . . more wishful thinking than anything.

It's a forest fire waiting for an opportunity. The long, dead grass (kind of like the dried up, wispy gray beard of a 100 year old Chinese sage?) only needs the suggestion of an ignition source and it's up and burning. Yesterday we were paged to a tree on a hydro line out in the far, far flung peripheral edge of the universe. It was turn-your-umbrella-inside-out windy, but I declined. I don't mind helping the province out, especially because they pay us to help, but there were too many potential tree-on-hydro-line incidents waiting to happen right here in our back yard. And it would feel really dumb if the whole village burned down while we were an hour away babysitting a tree on a hydro line.

I found out later that the province sent two water bombers and a chopper crew to the forest fire that resulted from the tree on the line. I hated to miss all that fun, but at 7:00 we got our own tree on our own hydro line and had our own fun right in our own backyard. There really is some justice in the world.

Gotta run. I'll have to catch you up on the other latest news from the peripheral edge later.

Monday, April 12, 2010

various and sundries

For all of you non-outer space buffs, today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission that was hailed as the most successful failure of all time (if you are a space buff you already knew that). I remember the moon landing a year or so earlier, but for some reason this crisis didn't make an impression. It might have had to do with being eight years old and completely wrapped up in the Brady Bunch and Jackie Gleason. I did watch the Apollo 13 movie a few years ago. Those guys (the astronauts not the actors) had nerves of steel. You can read the Apollo 13 story here.

I didn't previously know that Canadians played a part in the rescue operation. You can read about that story here.

I remade a chicken curry dish that first appeared in my March 21 post.

If it looks different than you expected, it's because I added broccoli and mushrooms AND I used water instead of milk for the sauce (I didn't read my own recipe). I also added a bit of soya sauce. My amateur-cookish opinion: the broccoli and mushrooms were good, the water instead of milk was bad, and forget the soya sauce. It still would have been better with asparagus, but it wasn't worth $3.50/pound (hence the broccoli).

If you are a regular reader, you know that alcohol doesn't like me. Dean Gunnarson (who is a modern day Houdini) doesn't drink much either, but that didn't stop him from doing a stunt in a keg of beer in Winnipeg last Saturday. Winnipeg, as you may remember, is near the longitudinal centre of Canada. There's got to be some symbolism there . . . let's see . . . positive energy generated by the balance of equal amounts of free Canadian territory to the east and west breaks the bands of addiction and liberates the soul . . . oh, never mind.

An early spring is turning into an early dry spring. No fires yet. Since I don't believe in knocking on wood . . . um . . . keep your fingers crossed, or rub a rabbit's foot, or meditate on the longitudinal centre of Canada, or . . . whatever.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The even farther far-flung edge of the Universe

If Northwestern Ontario were the South Pacific, Thunder Bay would be Australia, Dryden and Kenora would be Tahiti and Fiji, Fort Frances would be Singapore, and Pickle Lake would be Easter island . . . one of those how-did-humans-get-here kind of places. Upsala would be a nameless speck of an island that mariners pass on their way somewhere else. But today, I'm extolling the remoteness of Pickle Lake.

Pickle is not one of those places that you pass on your way somewhere else. If you end up in Pickle Lake, you either really wanted to go there, or you're really lost. Pickle is at the very tippy-top end of a three or four hour drive up Highway 599. It's the most northerly community in Ontario that has year-round access by road.

Upsala is 100 km from the nearest Mutual Aid. Pickle is 300. Chief Dalzell, who is a friend of mine, knows if Santa doesn't send his his flying pumper and fire elves from the North Pole, no one is coming to help at his fire.

Until today, I never really understood how a place like Pickle came into existence. Upsala, marginally far-flung as it is, at least lies on two transportation arteries: Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Trans-Canada Highway. Upsala just kind of happened. Rail workers, exhausted from a day of driving spikes, laying rails, and slogging swamps, pitched their tents here one night, and a new whistle stop was born. Pickle, on the other hand, was a deliberate creation, carved into the bush purposefully, way out there in God's country where the North Pole is a local phone call.

I always wondered . . . if they were hell-bent on building in a wilderness paradise with unimaginable fishing and hunting, why didn't they stop at kilometre 50 or 30 or even 20? Why did they have to go to kilometre 300?

The answer is gold. Gold does strange things to people, like compelling them to build a road through 300 km of swamp, muskeg, and Canadian Shield. Gold was discovered near the current town of Pickle Lake in 1928. And gold is the reason that many people go to Pickle Lake. Of course others go for the unimaginable fishing and hunting.

The Fire College's travelling road show has never bushwhacked it's way to Pickle, I'm not a miner, and I've found my own awesome fishing without driving to Santa's back yard . . . so I've never been to Pickle. I have met a number of their gutsy fire department crew, though. They regularly take the intergalactic express to Dryden or Kenora or Thunder Bay to attend various and sundry types of training.

Unlike my April Foolish claim about Upsala, Pickle was not voted North America's top tourist destination in 2009, but you still might want to check it out. If you happen to be driving through Upsala from Thunder Bay, just drive another 100 km west to Ignace, then 300 km north and you'll be there in no time.

If you aren't up for the drive, you can take a digital journey. Here a few links: Township of Pickle Lake, Wikipedia's interpretation of Pickle Lake, and a map of the area.

Just don't forget your virtual fishing pole.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


There are certain things that just aren't done. For example, it's a big no-no for fire departments to cross municipal boundaries and respond to emergencies in a neighbouring fire department's territory. To make an analogy from the retail sales world, the Ignace Avon rep would never think of selling nail polish to customers in Dryden or Upsala or Thunder Bay. That would be trespassing on someone else's turf, and it just isn't done. Fire responses aren't like that, but at least you get the idea.

The "stick to your turf" rule has some merit . . . Township A would be really mad if they needed a manicure and all of their nail polish was being squandered in Township B. Or if one of their houses burned to the basement while their trucks were gallivanting in Township B.

But like all rules, this one is dumb sometimes. Township B needs Township A's nail polish occasionally, and vice-versa. So Townships A and B sit down and make a deal. "You can sell nail polish to my customers (if I ask you to), and I can sell nail polish to your customers (if you ask me to)." It works well, since neither township has a high demand for nail polish (or gets many fires). And why should Township A's firefighters twiddle their thumbs (or polish their nails), while Township B exhausts its crews on the fire of the century?

This is how the Mutual Aid system works in centrally universal rural Ontario. Screw the turf rules (under certain circumstances) and let's work together.

Usually, Township B is sandwiched nicely between Townships A and C, which makes for cozy Mutual Aid agreements. In fringe areas, the townships have neighbours on only one side, with the Great Canadian Wilderness (the dread "no-man's land") on the other.

If you look at a map of Upsala, which is on the peripheral edge of the universe, you'll notice that we're an island in the middle of the Great Canadian Wilderness. Our neighbours in Ignace and Shebandowan have to drive an hour through the dread no-man's land to get here.

This is all fine and good and relatively irrelevant. We know that we live on the boreal equivalent of a secluded tropical island. Except that ours is either frozen or mosquito-infested depending on the season, so that's a worse analogy than the nail polish. But you get the point. In a culture where leaving your boundary is a no-no, Mutual Aid to Upsala is close to intergalactic travel . . . so we're on our own most of the time. Which is also fine. We know this already.

Except that "no-man's land" doesn't mean that no one lives there. Upsala is surrounded by microscopic islands of humanity even tinier and more unorganized than we are. A cottage here. A small business there. "No-man's land" simply means that there is not enough population to support a fire department.

Even this is relatively irrelevant to most of the people in the universe, including us . . . until a house in no-man's land catches fire, or a traveller crashes. Then there is a request for an intergalactic space rescue mission, and they call us because no one else will go. In a culture where leaving your boundary is a no-no, it becomes problematic. Click here to read about one such response that we made a number of years ago. Click here to see a cartoon I drew about our mutual aid dilemma.

There is no answer to the problem, except to invest in rocket propellers for our trucks to get us there and back faster.

Speaking of rockets, I'm sure you heard that the US and Russia signed a deal to reduce nuclear armaments. Now they will only be able to destroy the earth a dozen times. But it's progress.

Back on earth, one of our marginal neighbours, Kaministiquia (say what?) just finished a response to a huge pile of burning railroad ties. Fortunately, they have neighbours that can help without travelling through space, and they were able to resolve the situation before it escalated into a full-blown forest fire. Here's a picture, courtesy of the Kam Fire Chief, Ken VanEvery. Good work Kam!

Monday, April 5, 2010


The first anniversary of my blog came and went without fanfare. No trumpets. No interview with Oprah or Ellen. No front page headline in the New York Times (I could have even written it . . . Alien Blogger Survives Year in Cyberspace" . . . or something). No champagne or cake, not even a celebratory cookie. Actually, Erinn did bake cookies, but they were Easter cookies not Blog Celebratory cookies.

One perk of passing the one-year mark: I can hurl trivial historical facts at you with a degree of certainty not otherwise available.

Here's one to start with: the ice on Lang Lake went out on April 5th, a full month earlier than last year. As a bonus, my 84 year-old father's friends talked him out of ice fishing the day before. The weather has been great, but it's still too early for a swim. I went for an unexpected swim in November once, after prematurely insisting that the ice was safe. Not all breathtaking experiences are recommendable.

The most amazing part of blogging is that people actually read. That's the biggest incentive to write, outweighing the improbabilities of fame and fortune and interviews with Ellen.

It isn't too late to celebrate this momentous first anniversary, by the way. You can send me a virtual cake.

My thoughts on 161 posts, and a year of impulsive writing? It was a lot of fun. Here's to another year . . . (a round of cyber champagne to all).

Friday, April 2, 2010

Upsala in History

Now that I've made a lame attempt to April Fool you, here's a piece of Upsala history:

April 1, 1997
The March lion descended a day late, and it's blizzarding like it can only blizzard in the spring in Upsala. Ambulance is paged at 8:00 to a "vehicle in the ditch." Fire isn't paged, because in those days we were only paged when they knew they needed us. Nobody thought they needed us this time . . .

At 8:30, still no page. I guess they really didn't need us.

At 9:00 my pager goes off. Extrication needed in English River. I know that Upsala Ambulance made the request as soon as they arrived at the scene, so I know that the thirty minute drive took them an hour because of road and visibility conditions.

At 10:00 we arrive at the scene. It's more than just a vehicle in the ditch. Two tractor trailers head-on. A dislodged cab is laying in the middle of the highway. A pile of tortured metal, glass, and wheels is lying in the ditch. The dislodged cab guys are on the road with sheets over their faces . . . no need for extrication or ambulances there. Paramedics are clustered around the scrap heap in the ditch. There's a guy inside. Way down deep inside.

I climb on top of the wreck and peer into the abyss. I see a small corner of the guy's face.

"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I just can't move."

This is my first extrication. We have a hand spreader, a come-along, a pry-axe, a couple hacksaws, and a few screwdrivers. I look at my crew. Most of them are new at this game too. The snow is falling hard.

"Bring a come-along," I say, trying to sound like I have a plan. I grasped a thin thread of hope that if I just did something, we'd figure out the rest along the way. I hooked the come-along to a twisted thing that used to be the steering wheel. Not a great place to start, but better than doing nothing.

At that precise moment, Ignace Fire Department arrived. I hadn't called them, but because the crash occurred on the border of our territory, they were paged as well.

They started unloading heavy hydraulic equipment. Cutters. Spreaders. Rams. A power unit. The famous Hurst Jaws of Life. I felt like a soldier in a foxhole, armed with a squirt gun, while the bad guys with AK 47's were closing in . . . and the tank brigade shows up for the rescue.

"What do you want us to do," asks the Ignace IC.
"Get him out and we'll cheer you on," I say.

Ignace moved into rescue mode like an efficient machine. Orders were barked. A small motor roared. Firefighters hustled. Metal protested.

I busied my guys with support functions . . . pull a hose line . . . shore up the trailer . . . ferry tools back and forth from the tarp.

One last tangle of sheet metal groaned out of the way, and the driver was slid onto a backboard and into the ambulance. I shook a bunch of hands, gave a round of thanks to everyone, then we packed up and went home.

Times change. We now have our own heavy hydraulics. We automatically go to every fender bender that the ambulance responds to. We're better trained. We have our own vehicle rescue stories chalked up as experience. And we call Ignace before the trucks roll if we think there's any chance we might need them.

I twisted this experience into a launching pad for a rant about politicians a while ago. If you haven't already, you can read it here.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

We Won

Surely you've heard by now. Upsala was voted North America's top tourist destination in 2009.

I don't blame you for being stunned, especially since we were up against the sun-soaked beaches of California and the breathtaking beauty of Banff. It could have been the quiet, friendly atmosphere of the Upsala Shell Restaurant. Or maybe the convenience of a General Store/Post Office/Liquor Store complex conveniently located in the downtown core of the village. Undoubtedly our fire department's crackerjack reputation contributed to the decision. Whatever it was, welcome to the new tourist capital of North America.

And happy April Fool's Day.

Okay, that was a little far out, but so is designating the moon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site so that flocks of space tourists don't steal the artifacts left behind by lunar missions. The Lunar Legacy Project isn't even playing April Fool's pranks.

And people think I'm loony.

By the way, if you do decide to check out Upsala's tourist amenities this summer, bring your space suit. You'll need it to fend off the blackflies.

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