Up Close and Personal with Chicken Little

When I was a kid, I never understood Chicken Little.  I hated the way he ran around over reacting about something that wasn’t real.  But this week, I knew exactly how he felt.  We had weather that made me think the sky was falling in.  Suddenly, all that I knew to be true in the world, those basic and inviolable laws of nature, were no longer.  The world was completely upside down and it felt like anything could happen.  It felt like the sky could fall in.

Since my last post, the fires in the north have  garnered national media attention.  In typical fashion, the reporting seemed a bit dramatic.  I scoffed when the Huffington post called the fires ‘apocalyptic’.  Yes, sure, the photos are pretty dramatic, but apocalyptic is a strong word.  I shrugged my shoulders when I heard that our air quality was worse than Beijing.  Okay, maybe it was for a few days, but its wood smoke, so its got to be better than breaking in the toxic fumes of a large city, right?

Smoky View of Houseboat Bay

Smoky view of Houseboat Bay

Since my last post, the fires across the north continue to burn.  They are getting bigger and closer to town.  The power station was out of commission for several days and the town was running on diesel generators.  The neighbouring community still can’t even assess their power lines due to the fires.  The road in and out of Yellowknife is closed most days, opening only intermittently.  Travelers are stranded all over the place, and the delivery trucks are getting through only in dribble.  At times the shelves in the grocery stores are nearly empty.  The closest fire is some 30 km away, and there was concern a few days ago that it might breach the containment lines.  If it did, its hard to imagine what would happen here.  Yellowknife is a town with one road.  If that road was closed, and the airport closed, being the nearest thing we have to a fire break between us and the wilderness, where would we go to escape a fire?  The isolation of this place, part of its great charm, certainly makes us vulnerable as well.  (I am not comforted by the complete lack of discussion around disaster planning either.)

Things all came to a head a couple of nights ago.  The wind switched to the northwest, putting us directly downwind from that near by fire, and all its smoke.  At the same time, the mother of all thunderstorms was brewing right over town.  It was about 5 pm, and suddenly, the sky became dark.  The numerous planes that come and go all suddenly headed to the airport, and we saw two big water bombers dump their load on the edge of the lake – in preparation for an early return to the airport.



Then the sky became  entirely black, covered by an enormous cloud, leaving nothing but a thin band of blue sky to the south.    At this point the experience changed from interesting to bizarre and inexplicable.  I don’t know if it was the light shining from the south, or the polarizing effect of the clouds, but suddenly every pane of glass we could see in town was glowing with a slivery sky blue light, as if lit from within.  Even the white boat hulls and the seagulls were luminous, glowing in the dark sky.  Literally glowing.  (Apocalyptic zombie seagulls perhaps?)


This house in unoccupied

This houseboat appears to have lights on inside but it does not

And the sky became darker and darker, until all we could see were the lights of town.  It was eerie to see darkness at 5 pm in a town where the sun currently sets at 1030 pm, but it was doubly eerie because the darkness was of a degree we had never seen before.  (One friend, who was out of town on a lake at the time, says it was like being in a cave – he could barely see 10 feet.)  It was the blackest of nights.


Getting darker….

The view of town

Dark!  That house is still glowing but the lights are still not on….what is going on?

This incredible, apocalyptic darkness was accompanied by thunder and lightening.  By red lightening bolts across the sky, and big and prolonged roars of thunder.  Yes, that’s right, red forks of lightening.  Apparently something to do with polarized light yet again. It was unnerving, being in a metal house floating on the lake during a thunder storm, with red lightening.  I texted my friend to see if she thought we should head to town, but she said NO, she wanted to leave town and come to the lake, where she was less likely to be caught by raging forest fire.  (Several families out of town and nearer to the fire, were advised to evacuate at about that time.)


Surprisingly, there wasn’t much wind, at least not anything like the usual winds of 50 km/hr we’ve been having of late, so that was a pleasant turn of events.  And then it started to rain, which was nice too, as we really need some.  Turns out it was the strangest sort of rain however – it was black.  (The end of the storm revealed tarry, oily black rain on everything.  The house, vehicles, the deck and the boats – all filthy.)

P1110761As this all played out over two hours, we had a bit of time to get used to the strangeness of it all:  the total daytime darkness, apocalyptic zombie seagulls, houses that glowed from within, the red lightening, and the black rain.  We came to realize that this might be all we were in for, and perhaps the lightening strike, the tornado and apocalyptic zombie giant man eating pike were not going to show up this time.

Gradually the thunderstorm lessened, the sky lightened, and filled with a glowing orange light that slowly turned into the color of a ripe yellow peach.  Shortly thereafter the smoke rolled in and the air quality became much much worse than Beijing.  Its been quite awful the last couple of days – its hard to be outside for too long without feeling ill.  But, we are still here, and we give thanks for the fact that the world as we know it is mostly back to normal.  As for me, I have a new found empathy for Chicken Little.

The orange sky

The orange sky

Followed by the yellow sky

Followed by the yellow sky

Apparently we live on the edge of the known world - at least it looks that way in the smoke

Followed by the smoke – or maybe we just live on the edge of the known world…

About Tandi

I love my morning coffee, reading, the wilderness, paddling, poetry, my Spanish husband, and being a doctor. I also love writing my blog, and reading yours.
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18 Responses to Up Close and Personal with Chicken Little

  1. Joan says:

    Hang in there Tandi. That is just an awesome and terrifying event. I wish you cooler weather and shifting smoke and rain that is not black love Joan

    • Tandi says:

      Hi Joan,

      Thank you for the well wishes. The smoke has been even worse these last several days, its untolerable to be outside. But tonight, a bit of fresh rain! Looks like this smoke season will be with us for a month or two yet – they are saying the fires won’t settle until winter…which isn’t as far away as in other places.

  2. Reblogged this on Apiarylandlord's Blog and commented:
    Good description of very strange weather

  3. Jenn says:

    Great shots of the BIZARRE light. I have never experienced anything like that in my life, and I don’t care to again. Even the cars’ headlights weren’t penetrating the darkness.
    The thing about the Zombie Apocalypse coming to town is that, they will all starve because anyone with a brain will be out on the big lake, bobbing out of the Zombies’ reach (it is a well-known fact that zombies can’t swim)

  4. Your photos are scary and revealing Nature’s awesome power. Take good care and hope for the best my dear.

  5. Todd says:

    If it helps the sky changing colours, raining ash, darkness, and lightning are all normal for a hot fire—much of the underlying physics is essentially that of a volcanic eruption. Feeling lousy doing anything outside is normal too; doesn’t take much with that much smoke. It was trippy for me the first couple times. And if I experience anything this extreme it’ll probably be trippy again.

    But the windows and whites, wow, I don’t know. You’re looking northwest at town with light from the south and the sun over in the west so the geometry isn’t right for specular reflections unless the opening under the smoke was relatively southeast. And even if it was I don’t what would make the boats and the gulls glow. St. Elmo’s Fire is the first thing which comes to mind but it’s a coronal discharge and hence isn’t what happening here. Might be something in that direction, though.

    Thanks for sharing the sad news of the Olesen’s earlier. I’d considered kayaking out McLeod Bay and possibly meeting them. But it seems this is not the year for such things. It’s an edgy feeling backed into a corner like you are now and no fun. Stay safe; I imagine the new boat’s prepped for a run south into the lake if you have to.

    • Tandi says:

      Todd I think you might be right with your thoughts on the sun reflecting, as it was a southeast opening under the clouds. It seemed to persist after the opening closed thought so I don’t know what to think. I did read some thing in the paper that said the light was somehow polarized by the smoke.

      You are right about the volcano style erruption too – I think it was a combination of thunder storm and very hot smoke. That ash continues to fall most days. My white kayak is no longer white.

      Where do you live Todd?

      • Todd says:

        I’d be quite surprised if smoke resulted in polarization; haven’t seen the article but my guess would run in the direction of the reporter looking for a word for “messed with the light” and choosing that because polarized sunglasses make things dark too. Actual polarization requires some form of well ordered surface. Lots of things qualify but ordered is a poor description of clouds of smoke particles. The glow could be a combination of light earlier on and something else later. I’ve done some more searching on possible causes the past couple days and simply pulled a blank.

        There’s is quite a bit around about fire physics if you’re so inclined, though. As a short introduction, the nerd term for thunderheads is cumulonimbus clouds and the subset for fires is called (surprise!) pyrocumulonimbus. The bigger and hotter the fire the more power it puts into the thunderstorm above it; cloud heights of 10+km, diversion of air traffic, and ash fall quite some distance away are normal on a good sized forest fire. So, yes, you’re bang on. With extreme fire behavior there’s enough heat for thunderheads to develop to mesocyclones (tornados). For example, if you watch closely at about 1:45 in Alaska Firenado the winds into the whirl are ripping trees out of the ground. Haven’t seen anything comparable for this year’s NWT fires. But there are enough of them something like that’s probably happening somewhere.

  6. Kate Coffey says:

    How completely bizarre Tandi, and so beautifully written, I could almost feel myself there (but fortunately I am not). Look after yourself, let’s hope things improve over the coming days for you. xo

    • Tandi says:

      Thank you Kate. Things are about to get a whole lot better for us as we are going on vacation! An incredible trip – will put up a post about it soon. Happy travels to you my friend.

  7. Joyce Rabesca says:

    Great narrative and photos describing what happened in YK the other evening. We did not have that dramatic experience down the highway a 100km on the North Arm shoreline of Great Slave Lake, Behchoko. Lots of our friends in YK told us about what happened but, your documenting it with words and photos is the best. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Tandi says:

      Thanks for commenting Joyce. I’m glad you didn’t have the same storm and I hope the smoke is better your way too, but I can’t imagine that its much different. Take care of your self out there.

  8. shoreacres says:

    What an absolutely stunning experience. I do wonder whether you might have ended up beneath a pyrocumulus cloud. I’ve seen a couple develop here when planned burns on the prairie got out of control. The thunderstorm forms from the rising heat of the fire, and can put out some spectacular lightning, like this example from Tok, Alaska. The particulate matter from the fire might have contributed to the color of the lightning.

    As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the detritus from the fire that contributed to the eerie colors of the light, rather than cloud. When it’s extremely smoky here because of agricultural fires, or a summer inversion sets in due to heat, we can have sunsets when everything takes on color, ranging from lemon-yellow to orange. But those windows are something else. I’ve never seen anything like that.

    I hope things have cleared up a bit. No, I hope things have cleared up a lot.

    • Tandi says:

      Hi Linda,

      You seem to know a great deal about many things! I think you are right. We’ve had a month or two now of a sun that is an orange ball in the sky, both daytime and evening. But those windows are a bit strange, I am still not sure what to think about them.

      In fact the smoke is getting worse, its pretty much off the charts in terms of air quality and people are all staying indoors. Its way too unpleasant to be out – one feels quite ill. Luckily we get the odd reprieve of a few hours a day when we can open up the windows and cool off the house. Its not as amusing as it was, this experience. The grocery store shelves are half empty right now as the road has been blocked for days. Argg! Still we can’t complain as its inconvenient and nothing more. It could be much worse.

  9. Incredible photos, Tandi!

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