The 1998 ice storm was a defining moment in my life and the lives of many others in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. It challenged my sense of leadership like never before. It allowed me to marvel at the power of nature, really test my survival skills in this modern age of comfort and convenience, and for the first time, forced me to seriously consider the effects of climate change.
For those who never experienced it, the 1998 ice storm was an unprecedented weather event. Thirty-five individuals died and five million more — including my family — were left without electricity in the middle of winter, some for more than a month. More than 600,000 people were forced to live in shelters, farmers lost more 300,000 animals and the impact on our infrastructure was staggering. Because of the more than 100 mm of freezing rain that fell for days across the region, more than 30,000 wooden hydro poles were shattered and over 1,000 large metal pylons collapsed due to the weight of the ice. The effect on millions of trees was devastating. It was a storm of unprecedented force – scientists started mentioning it in the same breath of a new concept at that time: climate change.
In January 1998 I was the father of a young family – my daughter was six and my son was four. I was working for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources as a forester responsible for helping urban and rural landowners in the Ottawa area. On the first day of the ice storm, I went to work, thinking (like a lot of people) that power was going to be restored soon. After three hours of sorting files in a dark and phoneless office, I figured out that I would be more useful elsewhere. I spent the next 11 days trying my best to help my family, my neighbours and myself as best as I could.
Four long days into the storm and we were feeling like real survivors. We melted hampers full of snow for water to feed the toilets. We ventured into the city for a shower. We did all kinds of no-no’s: staging a Coleman stove in the kitchen to cook; sliding (like a complete idiot) with my son in the backyard in a toboggan on the first day of the storm until I smashed my knee on the one-inch thick ice; helping my neighbour free his electrical lines which, weighted down with ice, had ripped the hydro tower from his house. With rumours that Hydro Québec would bypass any house that had not freed its hydro lines, I remember touching my chainsaw to the small trees weighted down with ice and looking in horror as the saplings sprung wildly and dove straight into my knee. I hobbled away in amazement (yet again) at the power of nature (and my limitations in operating a chainsaw).
I remember listening to the crashing of tree limbs on the ice with its distinct “broken glass” sound. Watching at night the eerie, slow, blue explosions in the distance as transformer after transformer began to blow. The ice had locked their switches open while the downed wires shorted out and heated up the transformers. I remember looking at my 3’ cedar hedge lying flat on the ground (it recovered). I remember entering a Canadian Tire store in Gatineau looking (and smelling) like a Sasquatch and combing over the candles and batteries like I was the last human left on earth.
But the greatest change came after the ice storm was over, when I finally could leave my campground-home to return to work. Thousands of residents and landowners needed advice and direction about managing the thousands of broken trees strewn around their properties. The organization I work for now, Tree Canada, began a serious Operation ReLeaf program to help landowners, residents and municipalities trim and replace their trees. Foresters and arborists were never in more demand. Suddenly, I was in charge of technicians and an office to inspect properties and residents’ trees. Unfortunately, legions of arboricultural shysters (“Joe Chainsaws” as they were known) had arrived, holing up in area motels and going door-to-door telling people that their kids would be killed, or their homes permanently wrecked if they didn’t pay to have their trees cut down. In many cases, these trees were not a risk to anybody and were entirely viable. We were there to give more prudent advice and to allow people to understand that ice storms too were a part of nature.
For about six years after the storm, with the dropping of the leaves each fall, the sad reminders of the damage of the ice storm would return to many minds in full force. This episode helped hone both my skills as a manager and my ability to help my family, neighbours, people and myself. But more importantly, it provided me with a much better appreciation for people’s deep attachment to their trees.
Today I am proud to be part of Tree Canada — an organization that continues to help Canadians replace those trees that they once loved. Since our founding, we have replaced trees lost through floods like those in the Saguenay, through hurricanes such as in Nova Scotia, and through wildfires such as in Kelowna B.C. in 2003, Fort McMurray in 2016 and a new #OperationReleaf forthcoming in 2017. A true testament to our love of trees and our resilience in the face of climate change.
Read more about our active #OperationReLeaf programs here: