by Michael McGinnis
Things seem to go along pretty much the same for awhile, then we get hit with a big change all at once. The forest fire near Pelly was a spectacular example. I've driven the North Klondike highway several hundred times — I slow down at Pelly, but don't stop, and enjoy the green forest and the occasional errant moose as I make my trip. The last time down was different. I wasn't able to drive south beyond Pelly because the road was blocked due to a forest fire close to the road. Vehicles stacked up in Pelly for several hours, and people were waiting to see when they could leave.
At Pelly, I talked to a tourist from New York who reported that the road to the north was also blocked. He felt that the government's efforts to protect the people in Pelly were inadequate, and that we were trapped there and would likely be burned to death. He said that the federal government gave more money to Alberta in a week than it did to the Yukon in a year, but what could you do. "You can't fight city hall", he said. I didn't agree with all he had said, but if I was going to get burned up I didn't want to spend my last hours arguing. Just then, the road to the south was reopened and the tourist dashed to his car and drove off enthusiastically. I was happy to drive more slowly and enjoy the sights, being passed by a stream of drivers either eager to escape the clutches of the flames or impatient for the safety of civilization in Whitehorse. The sight of hundreds of small fires dotting the blackened forest floor, as the aftermath of the fire burning through the area gave a new interpretation to "northern lights".
While we still protect our property from fires, we now better understand that fire is a natural part of the forest's life cycle. On the average every hundred or two hundred years any spot in the forest is burned and the forest reincarnates in new forms. Rather than mistakenly believe that all forest fire is bad and so must be put out at enormous expense, we find that it is better to live with the natural law of succession — one form is automatically replaced by the next one in the pattern. As species change in sequence, we are able to take different things from the forest — next year there should be lots of mushrooms! Succession also allows the forest to adapt to changing conditions. As the climate warms up, new species from the warmer south may take hold in a burned area in addition to the old species previously present, allowing life to better adapt to the changing conditions.
Succession also happens in people's thoughts. Old patterns of thought may be disproved by experience. Sometimes a good book can give you a new way of looking at something, but it is often the more difficult experiences of life which are most likely to make us think, and not just to react. That tourist had a memorable incident on his holiday — he may have been stimulated enough to reconsider whether it is realistic to fight forest fires in Yukon the same way as house fires are fought in New York. But each of us is that tourist at some time: do we carry on with outmoded ideas and ways of seeing things, or can we let obsolete ideas be succeeded by better ones when the time comes?