Into the fire

Nancy Lafleur talks about the two photos she contributed to ‘Forest Fire: Picturing our Experiences’ during the official opening of the exhibit on Saturday. Lafleur was one of four contributors in Prince Albert for the opening. The exhibit runs until Dec. 30 at the Grace Campbell Gallery. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Nancy Lafleur could have been on a plane to Las Vegas, if only wildfire season had started a little bit later.

In June 2015, Lafleur had just finished earning her master’s degree, and was about to take a holiday with her husband to celebrate. The plan was to finish moving out of their apartment, then make one final trip to La Ronge before leaving for Las Vegas. Instead, they never got out of Prince Albert.

“He came here to pick me up and he only had the one change of clothes,” Lafleur remembered. “We were to pack up the bed in storage and then go back to La Ronge and pack up and make our way on our trip. He got here and the roads were closed.”

It was a disappointing turn of events, but Lafleur and her husband made the best of it. Instead of visiting Vegas, they became volunteer drivers who happily transported evacuees everywhere from shopping malls to medical appointments.

Those memories came flooding back on Saturday, as Lafleur and collection of northern photographers officially opened ‘Forrest Fire: Picturing our Experiences’ at the Grace Campbell Gallery. The new exhibit is a collection of photos and stories from Northern Saskatchewan residents who lived through the 2015 forest fire season, and the largest evacuation in the province’s history.

“Sadly, an event like this is what brings humans together,” said Lafleur, who lives in Saskatoon now, but made the trip to Prince Albert for Saturday’s exhibit opening. “We shouldn’t have events like this to bring us together, but at the same time, it kind of shows the potential of our human compassion, and how we are able to work together in different situations. I think that really is what I captured from this experience.”

Roughly 20 photographers contributed photos taken during and after the fires, with a special focus on the Egg Fire, which burned roughly 138,000 hectares in the La Ronge area.

The idea for an exhibit came from Heidi Walker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Walker spent a year in La Ronge interviewing residents about their experiences during the 2015 fire season. She wanted to find ways to show the societal impact forest fires can have on northern communities. An exhibit seemed like the best way forward.

“It’s a good way to share, through digital pictures and not just written boring dissertation documents,” Walker chuckled. “It’s been a very interesting way to connect with the emotional aspects of an event like a wildfire.”

Walker said northern residents had a range of experiences as a result of the fire, and not all where documented in 2015. Walker was concerned that too much media coverage portrayed northern communities in a disempowering way, but hearing individual stories paints a much different picture. The only challenge was to convince those she interviewed to take part in the project.

“We asked ‘what about your experience would you like to share or what would you like people to consider about wildfire in the future,’ and I think for some people who aren’t used to using photography or written stories to share their ideas, it was kind of daunting,” Walker explained. “But, I think once it got rolling people were excited about it. It’s an interesting way to share their own voices and experiences of fire through these photos.”

This isn’t the first time these photographs and stories have been on display. The exhibit ran for two months in La Ronge before coming to Prince Albert. Walker said she’s not sure what the future holds, so there’s no guarantee they’ll bring it to other cities.

“I’m going to talk to the participants and see what they would like to do,” she said.

‘Forest Fire: Picturing our Experiences’ runs until Dec. 30 at the Grace Campbell Gallery in John M. Cuelenaere Public Library.