MUSKOKA - A fire ban in the region has apparently fallen on deaf ears for some, even during Tuesday’s massive blaze in Milford Bay.
A firefighter sprays down a burning pine tree Tuesday afternoon in Milford Bay.
Photo by Roland Cilliers
The ban came into effect two weeks earlier on July 17, amid a spell of extremely dry weather and a string of other fires in the region. No fireworks and campfires — even for cooking and warmth — are allowed in Muskoka under the ban.
However, that didn’t stop somebody from lighting a fire at around 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening, at the same time emergency crews were battling the massive Milford Bay forest fire and coordinating the evacuation of nearly 50 homes.
After receiving the call about a burning complaint, the Muskoka Lakes Fire Department had to allocate one truck from its Foot’s Bay station to deal with the additional headache. At that point, the volunteer fire department already had crews from four other stations deployed in Milford Bay, and had called in an additional tanker truck from Bracebridge as backup.
Although the burning complaint was quickly snuffed out, Muskoka Lakes fire chief Richard Hayes said the situation could easily have become much more complicated.
“With people not heeding the burn ban, we could have ended up with a whole other big fire just like we had in Milford Bay,” he said.
Hayes said his department still had enough strength to offer coverage to the rest of the township without pulling resources away from Milford Bay. However, Hayes acknowledged that the potential for manpower issues was certainly there if things got more complicated.
“Any time that we’ve got an event, the potential is always there to stretch the manpower,” he said. “This one (the burning complaint) started really small and took off like wildfire, so the potential was certainly there.”
Though details are currently scant about the cause of the Milford Bay fire, Hayes told this newspaper that firefighters suspect it was caused by human activity.
Bracebridge has also had similar problems with people not taking the fire ban seriously. Fire chief Murray Medley said his department has been dealing with what appears to be a prank on a Vankoughnet fire information billboard.
Twice already, someone has stolen a sign on the billboard that tells passing motorists that a fire ban is in effect. Someone has also been altering a needle on the billboard’s fire danger rating display from “extreme” to “low.”
Though the cost of replacing the fire ban sign is small, Medley said the department is more concerned the prank is giving locals a mixed message about the fire ban.
“It’s just rather confusing for the general public. The media has been great with us as far as keeping the message out there on the forefront, but now we’ve got somebody here that’s going around giving exactly the opposite sort of impression.”
Medley invites anyone with information on the billboard alterations to call the fire department at 705-645-8258.
As with Muskoka Lakes, Bracebridge has also had its share of burning complaints.
“We took a truck out to douse a fire that somebody had inadvertently left over the weekend,” said Medley. “I guess they didn’t realize they couldn’t burn and they left something burning there that actually got down into the ground, and we had to take a truck out and dump a load of water on it.”
Since the fire ban was imposed, the Huntsville department has recorded over 200 calls about people breaching it.
Even before the fire ban came into effect, the Muskoka Lakes Fire Department found itself attending four separate fires over the course of five days beginning on Friday, July 13. Two were linked to campfires. A third, which grew to engulf about six acres of brush, was traced to the burning of debris.
Immediately after the fire ban was imposed, the Huntsville and Lake of Bays fire departments fought a grass fire on Pine Ridge Road on Wednesday, July 18. Things continued to get worse this week. Just one day before the Milford Bay blaze, Huntsville firefighters had to call in a provincial water bomber to assist in dousing a forest fire in Port Sydney, which ended up engulfing three acres of brush.
Within hours of that incident, Gravenhurst firefighters went toe-to-toe against another forest fire near the tree museum on Doe Lake Road. In both cases, firefighters had to return the following morning to mop up.
Earlier that same day, the Bracebridge Fire Department made quick work of a fire that completely destroyed a pickup truck at the Cottage Country General Store in Uffington.
Firefighters from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Parry Sound were also busy battling a number of fires in other regions of cottage country, including a large forest fire that broke out at around the same time as the Milford Bay blaze. That fire forced the evacuation of a First Nations reserve near Parry Sound.
Hayes reminds residents that the fire ban is no joke.
“What seems to be a little thing can become very, very big real fast,” he said. “With these fires, what we’re noticing is that they’re going really deep and travelling very fast, and so it’s important to heed the warnings.”