Book review: Nick Raeside revisits the slash burns of B.C.'s past

Author Nick Raeside worked as a slashburner, setting and managing fires to clear away the scrap wood left behind by clearcut operations and preparing the logged area for tree planters.

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Slashburner: Hot Times in the British Columbia Woods

Nick Raeside | Harbour Publishing

$24.95, 228 pp


Nick Raeside loves fires. As a child in New Zealand, as he reports in his new memoir from Harbour Publishing, he had an early firefighting experience. Seven years old, working barefoot in smouldering gorse and wielding a wetted burlap bag, he helped put out wildfire cinders close to a family cabin. He was hooked and remains fascinated by fire to this day.

Slashburner tells the story of Raeside’s decades spent in the B.C. woods in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Mainly, during those eventful decades, he worked as a slashburner, setting and managing fires to clear away the scrap wood left behind by clearcut operations and preparing the logged area for tree planters.

Slashburning is a controversial practice, with critics like Ben Parfitt — writing in The Narwhal earlier this year — arguing that burning slash unnecessarily adds C02 to the province’s emissions, and wastes wood that could be turned into value added products.

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Like many who worked the woods in those decades, Raeside is a great storyteller, and Slashburner is essentially a loosely linked set of anecdotes from his career setting fires. These are essentially good-humoured accounts of equipment failures, weather disasters, near fatal encounters with falling trees and imperfect logging roads, and of the ongoing tradition (at least on Raeside’s crews) of hair-raising pranks and practical jokes.

All of this arrives, to borrow a Leonard Cohen line, “on a visionary flood of alcohol.” Many of the adventures reported were either caused or eased by liberal applications of beer, wine and spirits.

Raeside delivers these stories in a relaxed, conversational style that makes this reviewer wish he was sitting in an Interior pub and swapping tall tales with the author. Raeside’s sense of humour can be rough, and his pranks often involved gasoline or dynamite, so some of his fellow workers may not have been entirely amused in the wake of the jokes. However, from the safe perspective of the reader, these stories are wonderfully funny, and they provide a useful view of working-class life in the province’s interior in the last decades of the last century.

In so doing, this book extends the Harbour Publishing’s service to future historians of the province. Many of the books published by this firm are, like Slashburner, glimpses of B.C. history, and, taken together, they represent a rich archive of B.C. stories.

Recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net