THE INFAMOUS GRASS FIRE AT WHITE SAND RIVER
It was June 24, 2009 and I awoke with some nostalgic feelings, knowing that this was my last day at the White Sand River Retreat owned by Jason Morozoff. As had been my routine for the past ten (10) days, I went for a walk North along the little-used dirt road. I loved the hill on the North Bank of the river and enthusiastically walked all the way to the correction line (about 3 ½ miles) and enjoyed the bright sun that was already hot at 6:00 A.M. I just couldn’t get enough of the pungent fragrances of Canola and other grains getting ready to bloom.
Returning, refreshed from my walk, I split some kindling and lit the fire in the heritage wood stove oven. As usual I warmed some water to sponge bathe my face and chest that had sweated during my walk. Water was boiling for my last two eggs and the coffee was perking in the old-fashioned coffee pot.
“This is heaven!” I exclaimed to no one in particular as I recalled my childhood growing up on the family farm 3 ½ miles North East of Pelly, Saskatchewan. I had the radio on to GX Yorkton as the Announcers bantered about upcoming events in the Yorkton District and played Western Music. I thought to myself, “Nothing, has really changed. It is almost like I was still a Teenager back in 1958, the year I left home to face the world.”
Then I reflected, “that was 51 years ago, you fool !”
Well I enjoyed my two boiled eggs and toast made over the dying coals in the stove. I garnished the remaining jam over the toast and drank my third cup of coffee. “Oh thank you Jason, for allowing me an opportunity to enjoy this time to meditate in this blissful spot.” I looked out the patio door at the water-filling drainage tributary to the White Sand River, and noted that my Beaver neighbor swimming by on his busy schedule to reinforce his house.
“Wow,” I spoke to him, “Thanks for dropping by to say good bye!’
So my thoughts went to preparing this last day:
- Sweep the floor
- Wash the floor
- Clean up the table
- Roll up my “fart-sack”
- Pack up my belongings
- Pack up my laptop
I needed to be ready for this “going away party” that was planned for the afternoon. Tim and brother David Verigin were to come and fry some Shishliki. Our extended guests would include Sister Mary from Benito and my wife Marilyn who were coming to take me away. We expected Cousin Peter Verigin and anyone else that just might have lost their way on the lonely road. In Saskatchewan, there never were any “Party-Crashers.” “Just grab a plate and pour yourself a drink and get that smile on your face.”
Then a thought came to my mind, “I should clean the ashes out of the stove and while I am at it, the two barb-b-cues, too,” The idea sounded good as what kind of a guest could I be if I left a mess behind me?
I looked around and found an old pail and a shovel and proceeded to scrape out the ashes out of the barb-b-qs outside. The stove was easy as there was an ash container below the grate and all I had to do was to knock all the ashes into it. There I was outside and planning where I was going to dump these ashes.
I thought about dumping them into the lagoon beside the Retreat but the idea of my friend, the Beaver, having to deal with this sacrilege to nature stopped me short. Perhaps over there behind the tree would be a good place? Then the debate was over “why not on the other side of the road into the ravine?”
And so it came to be. I dumped all the ashes down the bank of the ravine as nobody would ever see them. I was satisfied with my decision.
“Now I can drive into Veregin to the Seniors “Drop-in Centre” for coffee with the usual gang that gathers there after picking up their mail” I mused. David had loaned me his pickup so that I would have “wheels” and so I drove the nine (9) or so miles into Veregin. My first look was at the mouse trap that David had set in on the floor board. I thought it was his attempt to play a joke on me but as I looked at it carefully, I noticed a large mouse looking at me with his sorrowful and unblinking eyes. So I stopped and released his carcass into the Canola field for some Raven or Gull to have for lunch.
I was pretty excited as Fred Chernoff, Peter Veregin and the varied other visitors were supposed to bring me more history on the various notorious characters that had made history in Veregin. Some of them apparently had processed the Wheat in the “dirty thirties” into moonshine that had made its way South across the line. Who knows, maybe even Al Capone didn’t know where his Suppliers resided.
The boys did not disappoint me as the stories expounded to explain a farm equipment assembly line in what is now a community hall at the Doukhobor Village. Yes, there were stills along the White Sand River and names mentioned that are not necessary to repeat here.
On my way out, I decided to fill gas into David’s pickup and I drove up to the Coop Station only to bump into Tim who asked me what I was up to. “I need to fill this thing with gas”, I explained.
Without any explanation, Tim shoved his card into the pump and proceeded to fill the tank. “Hey,” I protested, “I want to fill this tank.”
“Sorry,” Tim retorted, “B.C. credit cards don’t work here.”
It was with a smile on my face that I proceeded North past the former Tolstoy School and another four miles further then turned West two miles and then North again to cross White Sand River and the Retreat located on the North bank.
It was then that I noticed a column of black smoke, billowing to the East with the wind. “What in the world is burning?” I contemplated various answers.
“No, my God, please no,” my heart started to race. “Please not the Retreat!” as I pressed on the gas.
As I neared the river crossing, I noticed the smoke was on the East side of the road, “well okay, the Retreat is not on fire, thank God, but what is?” I searched for an explanation.
As I came up the North bank of the river I noticed that a large grass fire was working its way North along the ravine on the East side of the road and had an expanded fire on the flat South towards the White Sand River. That fire was quickly proceeding East as well.
I took stock of the situation and began a process of forming a plan of action:
- First of all, I will need help
- Next, I need to try and quell the fire going North as it is the narrowest, caught between the green grain crop in the East and the dirt road on the West. This should be easiest to put out
- Then I can deal with the larger fire but I need to stop its progess to the East as I am not sure what buildings may be in its path. The fire going South will be stopped at the river water edge.
So I called Tim’s house with no answer followed by David’s place with no response. Okay let’s call Cousin Peter. Just as I was to give up after eight (8) rings, in a frenzied disappointment, when finally Tim answered.
“What’s up?” in his usual smart ass tone.
“I got a fire going here in all directions,” I hollered into the phone. “Do you guys have a Rural Fire Department?”
“Are you out of your mind?” he responded calmly. “There never was anything like that anywhere in Saskatchewan.”
“Well okay then”, I was pretty upset now, “ I guess I better go and piss on it then as there is no water hose here or pump to push the water,” as I hung up the phone.
I surveyed the situation, There was a tank full of water and a meager excuse for a pail but I will try that anyway as I filled the bucket, grabbed a shovel and rake and proceeded to the ravine with the fire burning North.
As I dumped the water I noticed what was taking place. The new green grass was standing above a matt of many years of dead grass that was very dry along with the broken dried maple tree branches and fallen trees. The fire was not high but it was being promoted with the ever present Saskatchewan wind. So I decided to beat the grass with my shovel which seemed to work well. I kept thinking “how in Hell did this get started?”
“Then it hit me like a baseball bat, “the ashes stupid! There must have been some embers in them that were encouraged to flame up with the wind.”
“Well that is the explanation all right,” I thought to myself. “Now let’s try and get this blessed thing out before the Air Force from Yorkton show up and dump that red shit all over me.”
I was able to get the fire stopped from going any further North and as I started to the fire going East, I walked past three (3) roll bales of last year’s hay that were on fire. “Let’s leave that for now as it poses no danger at this time. There is nothing that I can do to stop them from burning and if anyone needed those bales, they would have taken them away by now.”
I could see that the larger fire could not proceed North as the green Canola would stop its progress and I immediately went to the Eastern extremity of that fire and began the same process as the small North Fire with my shovel beating the grass. This fire had picked up momentum and a lot hotter than the fire that I just quelled. That is when Tim showed up and silently started assisting.
About that time Cousin Peter came by on his van to survey the situation. The rascal never even got out the van and turned it around and went home. I am not sure if I had paid any compliments to Peter as I watched him disappear.
Tim and I got control of the fire going East and surveyed the fire going South to determine whether we should try and put it out as the river would serve that purpose. We decided to try and stop it as David showed up on his pickup with a smart ass look on his face. He pulled a shovel out of his pickup and started to help until finally we got it beat.
Silently we all walked back to the pickups parked on the road like a besieged army of troopers returning from a battlefield and in the same shape and grime. Without a word, David opened the lid of his cooler with “cold beer anyone?”
Wordlessly we stood there and drank the first beer. When David reached for lid again, there were hands outstretched.
“Well it’s something new to talk about all right,” Tim was the first to utter that philosophical statement. “What the hell were you trying to do, here?”
I tried to appear intelligent by saying “well at least I didn’t burn the Retreat down,”
“How are we going to get these bales extinguished, I asked. “ They look like they will burn for a month or so.”
Tim got an idea, “I think I will go back the farm and get the Tractor with forks. We can disrupt the bales so that they can burn out.” He drove away.
David and I had another beer and watched the bales burn. “You sure know how make a day exciting don’t you?”
I nodded in agreement. “What do we tell Jason?”
Tim returned with the Tractor and the slow process of breaking up the bales resulted in us taking a Vodka break or two.
About this time Sister Mary and Marilyn showed up “what’s going on here?”
Silence was the best answer.
Elmer’s name will now go down in infamy as the guy who starts grass fires for no reason at all!
The epilogue went like this:
- Shishliki went as per schedule
- The ladies brought salads and dessert
- Cousin Peter showed up with that slight grin and he did not have to say anything
- We drank more beer and Vodka
- Tim made another philosophical and profound statement “we will never forget you!”
- Who asked him anyway?
- Jason flew in the next day and Marilyn and I dropped into his farm to thank him and a short visit.
- “Jason, I cleaned up your yard at the Retreat” as we parted.
Written April 14, 2013, 1600 hours