Richard Lopez

The Cautionary Tale of the Grassfire and the Prairie Ranch

By Dr. Gabriel Fabreau

Dr. Fabreau is a general internist at the Peter Lougheed Centre, director, Refugee Health YYC Research Program, O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary. Raised in Medicine Hat, Dr. Fabreau wrote this fable in November 2021 “to document my great disappointment as a healthcare worker with how we mismanaged COVID-19 in Alberta and to hopefully tell our story in a non-threatening way that promotes self-reflection and change.” Dedicated to Karen Lee Clark, 1961–2021, “my Canadian aunt, guide and sage.” 

Published in Eye on Alberta, Alberta Views, June 2022.

The ranch has fallen on hard times. The once prosperous land is dry and food scarce for the ranch’s animals. Hungry and crestfallen, the animals grumble. Only the eldest among them can remember such difficult times.

Joshua, a power-crazy magpie, squawks aggressively to all that would listen, declaring that the ranch is a victim of “outside forces,” blaming the eastern beavers who manage the waterways and promising that he alone can bring back prosperity. The ranch’s many herd animals—cows, horses, sheep and goats—are convinced by the magpie and angered by stories of unfair beavers and conspiring forces. They elect Joshua to lead the ranch, ousting Hannah, the diminutive but kind and wise swift fox.

Out on the prairie a locomotive rumbles along, carrying Banff-bound tourists. Its iron wheels strike a stone, sending a single spark into the tinder-dry grass. A prairie fire grows rapidly and threatens the ranch, where industrious burrowing animals and wise owls scramble to shore up the fire defences.

“Please stay in your corrals. We’re all in this together,” hoots Cheryl, the pint-sized barn owl charged with organizing the fire brigades. Meanwhile the gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and badgers desperately dig trenches to protect the Ranch and its inhabitants—courageously placing themselves in harm’s way.

“Your hooves will spread the fire and more animals will get burned or hurt by the smoke,” hoot the other owls, carefully studying the fire.

“We won’t mooooove. You are heroes,” the cows low thankfully.

The burrowing animals and owls eventually control the fire, examining it closely to learn much about its dangers, how it spreads and how to best protect the ranch.

“Fire is not a threat. We must be free!” Joshua caws disapprovingly. “The owls want to keep us locked up. We are self-reliant, personally responsible animals.”

Behind Joshua, a group of castrated bulls band together with a pack of yappy dogs. “The fire isn’t dangerous. We don’t believe it burns, and we have our own fire protections and treatments.” They bark and bellow, rolling in fresh cow patties.

Restless, the herd animals return to the dry fields. But the grassfire smolders on and the stamping hooves cause the grassfire to erupt again—leading to the deaths of many animals, especially the elders who cannot quickly flee.

The burrowing animals, badgers and owls again work furiously to fight the fire, treat the injured and protect the ranch. Again, the fire abates, but before it is out Joshua disparages the owls’ advice—and again the fire erupts.

As summer approaches, the danger subsides after the third grassfire. Joshua, eager to please the bulls and dogs, declares a premature victory. “Animals of the ranch, the fire is over!” he caws. “Now we can enjoy our traditional Summer Ranch Festival! This summer will be the best ever!”

The herd animals, tired of the fire’s impact and anxious for merriment, cheer loudly.

The gophers notice the prairie smoldering and winds rising. They squeak their warnings to the animals and beg the barn owl Cheryl to convince Joshua of the danger. Unfortunately, scared of the dogs, Cheryl says little.

Intent on celebrating, Joshua, the steers and the dogs protest loudly against the burrowing animals. “You know nothing and only want to stop us from enjoying the summer we deserve. Our festival will entice the rain clouds and bring back prosperity!”

The owls and burrowing animals, exhausted from fighting the fires and saddened by the destruction and deaths, anxiously warn Joshua—but to no avail.

The prairie’s fourth fire explodes, and this time destroys entire swaths of the ranch—corrals, winter shelters, barns, hay, grains and gardens. Overwhelmed, the exhausted burrowing animals send out distress signals that are thankfully answered by a platoon of eastern beavers—but it’s not enough.

The ranch burns on and the spring-born calves, foals, kids and lambs begin to fall injured. All looks bleak on the ranch as many more animals die in the fire and others suffer permanent lung damage from inhaling the thick smoke, made toxic from the prairie’s poisonous over-fertilization.

Eventually, seeing smoke on the horizon and hearing the animals’ distress, a bison herd escape their nearby pen where they’ve been relegated despite living longest on the prairie. The bison help the exhausted burrowing animals and owls dig the required trenches and stamp out the fire—saving the ranch.

Realizing the many lives lost and destruction around them, the animals angrily turn on Joshua and his followers.

The magpie protests, “I’m sorry, I’m not sorry. It’s not my fault! I was following Cheryl’s advice. She’s the fire expert. We didn’t need help, especially not from beavers—they hate us.”

Annoyed by Joshua’s incessant squawking and lack of remorse, a bison elder charges at the petulant magpie and his followers, who together run away, still bellowing and barking about cow patties and beaver conspiracies.

“What now?” squeak the mice, licking their burnt paws with singed whiskers and blackened faces.

The wisest bison elder scans over the remaining animals and speaks solemnly. “The fire was Mother Earth’s way to remind you about your ranch’s lack of balance and the danger of over-extracting this land. We cannot live apart from nature nor divided between animals.”

Leaderless, the animals ask Hannah the swift fox to lead them again.

“What are we going to do?” meow some kittens, poking their heads from behind a scorched haybale.

“We will bury and remember our dead,” says Hannah, softly. “We will thank the brave animals who sacrificed for all the others—then we rebuild.”

“Woof!” barks the largest dog. “The fire wasn’t so bad. Let’s just go back to how things were.”

Protest and bickering flare among the animals, venting their sadness and frustration caused by the collective losses.

“I know we just want to forget and move on,” says Hannah. “But we can’t. The fires may return, and many would have died and much lost for nothing if we don’t learn and change.”

Dr. Fabreau is a general internist at the Peter Lougheed Centre, director, Refugee Health YYC Research Program, O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary.

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