Clarence McCallum says it’s a miracle his family’s nearly three-decade-old cabin on Churchill Lake in northern Saskatchewan is still standing after it was surrounded by a roaring wildfire.
Late last Sunday, he received an urgent call from his retired firefighter father, Louis McCallum, that the Shaw fire near Buffalo Narrows, Sask., was creeping dangerously close to their cottage and they had to do something to protect it.
Clarence is an active firefighter who’s been working in recent weeks on the Vermette fire, closer to nearby Dillon, Sask. Last Monday morning, he drove to meet his dad at their own cabin.
The firefighting duo quickly got to work with their only available tools: shovels, gasoline and a combined 64 years of experience fighting fires in the north.
“All of a sudden you could hear the fire in the background really roaring, coming towards the cabin. I told my dad, I said, ‘If we don’t back burn, it’s going to burn down.’ I grabbed a five-gallon tank of gas that I poured around the cabin and lit it on fire,” Clarence told CBC News.
The pair started burning a line, eliminating as much fuel as they could from around the cabin.
Louis said it wasn’t long before the surrounding trees caught fire, wrapping the cottage in a ring of flames. That’s when they took off down their escape route.
“We didn’t have very much time to run to the lake — we barely made it to the dock. We had to run in the water and push the boat out, and get out of there,” Louis remembered.
“Once we got out of there, we didn’t even know where we were going anyway because there was too much smoke and red ashes just flying.”
For more than a week, people living in and around Buffalo Narrows have been evacuating the area; others have chosen to stay behind in an effort save their properties. The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency says it’s supporting evacuees in more southern regions of the province.
The McCallums, meanwhile, had to wait until the next morning to see if their firefighting efforts paid off.
While surveying the damage by helicopter, Clarence saw they were able to protect not only their cabin but their neighbour’s as well. He couldn’t wait to call and tell his dad the news.
“I told him that the cabin was still up. My mom was happy because that cabin was there for the family for the last 27 years and all of our pictures were in there — photo albums, all the memories that we had,” Clarence said.
“If that would have burned, it would have been a sad moment and I’m just glad that it’s still standing today.”
Aside from their cabin and the neighbour’s, Clarence believes all the other cabins in the area burned down. He credits their success in saving their cabin to teamwork — and his dad’s expertise.
“He taught me all I know and he still teaches me today on how to fight fires,” he said.
“To be there, fighting a fire like that, it breaks my heart. But for me and him to do that together, it sure bonded us even more.”