Extremely dry conditions, but few forest fires in 2012
With the recent rains, it’s shaping up as a wet fall.
Wet enough even to dampen the memory of the dry summer just ended, which by any criteria qualified as one for the books. Which leads me to open a book in which I once jotted down notes cribbed from annual reports covering the early years of the Parry Sound office of the Ontario Forestry Branch (OFB).
The OFB was created to combat forest fire, a serious threat to both timber resources and human lives, some 300 of which were lost to wildfire in the early decades of the 20th Century.
The OFB’s efforts were at first tentative, with the appointment of fire wardens who patrolled the forest equipped only with shovels, grub-hoes, and squirt gun water backpacks (the Parry Sound base acquired its first powered fire pump, an adaptation of an Evinrude outboard motor, in 1924).
By 1922, when the records began to be kept, certain advances in preventing and controlling bush fires had been made.
A network of fire districts, each presided over by a professional forester, now overlay the province well up into the boreal forest. The 8000-square-mile Georgian Bay District, headquartered in Parry Sound, encompassed Parry Sound and Muskoka districts plus a corner of Haliburton, and boasted a workforce of 64.
The annual report for 1923 reveals a hectic year, with 55,000 acres of the district burned, and difficulty encountered in hiring extra fire fighters. For example, while fires ran wild in Carling Township local farmers refused to exchange pitchforks for fire fighting tools until haying was finished.
As a result, the district forester urged passage of legislation making fire-fighting service mandatory, like military duty in wartime.
During the 1920s, 80-foot-tall steel fire-watching towers began sprouting on hilltops, sometimes replacing crude wooden structures erected a few years earlier by patrolling fire wardens. Standing out in the Parry Sound tower network was one erected on “Tower Hill,” within the town. In place of the scary ladder that accessed the firewatcher’s perch atop other structures, the Parry Sound tower incorporated a zigzag staircase for the convenience of the public, who used it as a viewing point.
A table surfaced with a map of the surrounding countryside, and a sighting device called an alidade, sat in the middle of the six-sided cupola from which a towerman scanned the horizon for telltale smoke.
When he sighted smoke, he determined the compass bearing, estimated the distance, then “rang up” headquarters via a grounded tree line telephone network to report the figures. Initially, the only other furniture in the cupola was a backless stool for the firewatcher to sit on.
Bending to complaints about aching backs, in 1926 the Parry Sound district forester asked Queen’s Park for funds ($5 apiece) to equip each tower with a folding, canvas-backed chair.
The worst forest fire year in the interval was that of 1936. A forest floor carpeted with resinous treetops left in the wake of decades of pine logging, and the great drought of the mid-‘30s, set the stage for numerous fires that raged over some 60,000 acres of the district.
Particularly hard hit was the northwest quarter of the region, the mainly thin-soiled region lying between Parry Sound and the French River.
My memory of the dry, smoky, summer of 1936 remains vivid.
My mother, whose family was burned out in the gale-driven holocaust that, in 1922, destroyed much of the town of Haileybury, Ontario, lived in dread of our farmstead in Sunny Slope meeting the same fate. Or failing that, that flames would overtake us youngsters in our daily hunts for milk cows that had taken to foraging in the woods after pastures turned brown.
Judge J. B. Moon of Parry Sound also took bush fires seriously. In contrast to the post-war boom times of 1923, when fire fighters were hard to find, by 1936 the Great Depression had turned a paying job into something worth fighting — or deliberately starting a fire — for. When a resident of Barnesdale, south of Parry Sound, was hauled before Judge Moon charged with setting fire to the woods, the judge found the man guilty of arson and sentenced him to five years in Kingston Penitentiary (the conviction was later quashed on the grounds that the evidence was purely circumstantial).
In contrast to 1936, the drought of 2012 left the region’s forest almost untouched by fire. Undoubtedly several factors contributed, including a changed forest makeup, perhaps fewer lightning storms, aerial detection of smokes, and aerial water bombing.
But I think John Q. Public also deserves a measure of credit. When I hired on with the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, 63 years ago last spring, all the credentials I had to offer my employer were two legs and two arms. But one of those arms was handy with a paintbrush, so the chief ranger immediately put me to work painting roadside signs proclaiming “Do not throw cigarettes from cars,” “Be sure your campfire is out,” and so on.
However, I doubt that my efforts produced a noticeable reduction in human-caused bushfires. But nowadays, I’ve noticed, when a fire ban is imposed the word gets out and people pay attention. So I suggest that the forest protection folk owe the outdoor-using public a tip of the hardhat for helping weather the volatile summer of 2012 largely unscathed.