What began as a typical fly-in fishing excursion quickly turned into a life-threatening situation for Eileen and Robert Young of Arbor Vitae as the couple was evacuated not once, but twice in the wake of forest fires raging across Canada.
Eileen and Robert started their fly-in fishing trip to the Chimo Lodge in Red Lake, Ontario on Miller Lake and had been there just a few days before they said they saw smoke.
“At nine o’clock in the morning, these Canadian firefighters arrived and they unloaded a complete sprinkler system and set it up that sprinkled the roof,” Eileen Young said. “Put boards up underneath the cabin and they told us we were perfectly safe. We’re fine, that we could go out fishing, that this was just a precaution. So we went out fishing, thinking we were fine.”
The Youngs, joined on their vacation by Tom and Lynne Kilian of Presque Isle, as well as the Kilians’ sons Tim and Mike, were portaging — taking their boat and walking through the woods to another lake — and were fishing until around four in the afternoon on July 4 when the float plane flew over again.
“All of a sudden, the float plane came back an did a total nosedive at us,” Eileen said, saying she knew something bad had happened. “We got to jump all the way back through the woods, carrying all our stuff back in the boat to get back to the cabin. And they said, ‘You got 10 minutes to get all of your stuff out of that cabin and into the plane.’”
The Kilians had been alerted too, and had arrived to the cabin before the Youngs did, Eileen said.
The Youngs and Kilians did as they were told, throwing everything they owned into any kind of box they could find and throwing it in the plane.
When they got into the plane, the owner of the Chimo Lodge and Outposts, Chris LeBlanc, told them they could be taken back to the base camp at Red Lake, where they had flown out of, but that the area was “really fogged with smoke” and the plane couldn’t guarantee to land there.
“And the hotels, it’s a small town. They have a couple of hotels,” Robert Young said. “He (LeBlanc) said they were all booked up.”
“He says, ‘But I have another plan. We have this cabin on Wagin Lake that had a fire four years ago, so there’s all kind of dead wood around it.’ And he said, ‘You should be perfectly safe there. We’ll come back Saturday, things will have calmed down a little bit. We’ll pick you up on Saturday like you’re gonna fly out,’” Eileen said.
‘ I think that saved everybody’s life’
That was how Robert and Eileen found themselves at the cabin on Wagin Lake that Thursday evening, reorganizing everything the families had thrown into bags and tidying up a cabin that hadn’t been used in a while.
The next morning, the Youngs decided to continue their fishing trip, fishing up until around three o’clock in the afternoon when they started seeing smoke coming toward them and taking over the lake.
“We started heading back to the cabin and we ran into the boys (Tim and Mike), and they wanted to know if we knew where their parents were because they were getting worried,” Eileen said. “So they went and got their parents and we all got back into the cabin.”
The Chimo Lodge & Outposts called for the evacuation, notifying the firefighters at 6 p.m. Friday night, the Youngs said.
According to Eileen, it had started to get really dark around nine o’clock at night, a time when there’s usually still daylight up in Canada, when pellets of burnt pine needles began hitting the cabin.
“The sky just turned black and orange and yellow,” she said.
The Youngs described seeing an orange glow through the trees and hearing the roar of the fire.
Young said they had called LeBlanc, who had given them a satellite phone when they first flew in. Without cell service or a landline, the satellite phone became the primary source of communication which ended up being more helpful than either family could have realized.
“I think that saved everybody’s life,” Eileen said. “The firefighters had no idea that we were at this lake.”
The Youngs witnessed what they believed to be a vortex that “sucked all of the fire and took it straight up.”
“This turned out to be like hell,” Eileen said.
“We had 50 mile-per-hour winds,” Robert said.
Within a couple hours, Eileen said, the wind had gotten so bad they couldn’t get out of the cabin and it was “blowing sparks and twigs and everything at you.”
Tim and Mike Kilian; however, took turns going out to see how far the fire had progressed, Eileen said.
“You could hardly breathe outside, just to see how close it was getting. If that jumped to the cabin and the cabin started fire, that’s when we were going to the piers,” Eileen said. “We got lucky. It was pretty hairy.”
“It truly looked like it was the last day on Earth,” Robert said.
Initially, the firefighters told the families to get into one of the boats on the nearby lake and go to one of the lake’s islands.
“The islands in the middle of the lake were on fire,” Robert said.
“And the island they had told us to go to was on fire,” Eileen stated.
“We had 50 m.p.h. winds and you couldn’t see five feet in front of you,” Robert said.
“There’s no way you can get the boat out there,” Eileen agreed.
According to the Youngs, this was when the firefighters told them to put on life vests and go in the water if the fire got too out of control.
By early Saturday morning, the fire had jumped a little piece of water and had moved closer to the cabin, getting just about 100 feet away.
“Everyone kept communicating back and instead of calling every hour, we were calling every half hour all night long, just to let them know we were OK,” Eileen said. “Now, Tim Kilian, they’re crediting with saving 20 people’s lives, besides ours.”
According to Robert, there was another cabin about nine miles away with 20 people there, and Kilian was telling the firefighters how the winds had shifted, sending the fire heading toward the other camp.
“The guy that owns the resort contacted them and told them all to get into boats and get to another island,” Robert said. “In the interim, the helicopter pilots said they’d be there at six in the morning.”
During the night, as nobody slept, the Youngs and the Kilians kept making escape plans as circumstances changed around them. Whether it be putting sleeping bags at the shoreline should they need to go in the water, or preparing a boat to go to the island, they had a plan.
“You know what, we were pretty calm, because in my mind, we got to the lake,” Robert said. “We’re not gonna burn in the lake.”
Smoke and reduced visibility delayed the helicopters until around nine in the morning.
“I’ll tell you something, you cannot give those people from the Ontario firefighters enough credit,” Robert Young said. “You cannot believe how good they were with us.”
Beautiful, in an odd way
When the helicopter was finally able to land, getting out of there was a matter of grabbing the essentials and running to the helicopter.
“They just told us ‘grab your passport, grab your wallet’ and run to the helicopter,” Eileen said.
Four or five firefighters had jumped out of the helicopter to help the Kilians and Youngs, and remained behind while the helicopter transported the families to safety.
“They were gonna come back for the firefighters and bring a sprinkler system to protect the cabin,” Robert said. “When we were at the base camp where the firefighters were, I said, ‘Nope. We have to go back. They don’t have time. We gotta get those guys outta there.’ So they flew them back. Never mind you, there’s seven or eight fires going all over.”
The Youngs and Kilians were taken to the firefighters’ base camp, where they were given water and food. By that time, it was noon on Saturday.
“When they brought us back to base camp, the guy that was in charge for the firefighters, he said ‘You people have seen what very few people have ever seen.’” Robert said. “It was amazing. I couldn’t tell you. It was something you’ll never forget. It was beautiful. Actually beautiful in an odd way, but it was beautiful.”
By 1 p.m., the Youngs were back at the Chimo Lodge and decided to take the five-hour drive to International Falls.
“It was kind of funny, though. The funnier thing was when we pulled up to their place, they had backed our cars up and opened the trunks to load all of our stuff in,” Eileen said. “And the guys said, ‘I’m here to load your stuff in,’ and I said, ‘’Here (her purse) it is.’”
When they got to International Falls, even though they hadn’t slept in almost 48 hours, they drove on through to Wisconsin.
“We wanted to get home,” Robert said.
The Youngs aren’t sure whether the cabin they were staying at burned in the fire, or if their belongings were OK.
Robert said the owner assured them anything left in the cabin that burns was insured, but if their belongings survived, they’d be loaded onto a truck and sent down to the a friend of the Youngs.
The experience won’t deter the Youngs from returning to Canada in the future.
“We’d go back again,” Eileen said.
Though she did have one piece of parting advice: “If you ever get a chance to go on a fly-in, the only thing I could say is make sure you have a satellite phone. I don’t care what it costs.”
Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]