Forest fires force conscription

Forest fires force conscription

28 May 2011

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Canada — Dozens of mainly young and single Grande Prairie men stopping by the York, Park or Donald Hotels for a couple of quiet beers – or even minding their own business at pre-season baseball and fastball games out at Richmond Park – never made it back home for a couple of weeks in May 1961.

Flying squads of Mounties and Alberta Forest Service wardens swooped down on the unsuspecting and bundled the conscripts off to fight a trio of massive blazes slashing through the Smoky and Kakwa River areas 50 miles south of the city.

“Guys would be sitting in the York having a beer and the Mounties would come in the front door,” recalls Phil Briard. “They’d jump up and head for the back door to get away – right into a waiting police wagon.”

Press gangs also popped into cafes in the city and surrounding communities and the Grande Prairie employment office for able, if not willing, bodies.

Many were flown out of the city five or six at a time aboard a deHavilland Beaver shuttle to firefighting bases.

The biggest fire initially was the Smoky-Kakwa blaze chewing up 5,000 acres on an eight-mile-wide front. There was a smaller 1,500-acre fire along the Cutbank River.

But by the end of the month, there were 600 men and a small fleet of water bombers battling flames over 300,000 acres. It was costing $5,000 a day, AFS superintendent Ray Smuland said.

Mayor George Repka asked the province to call in the army: “We’ve gone as far as we can on our own resources.”

Chamber of commerce president Mel Rodacker agreed: “It’s desperate and getting worse.”

Defence Minister Douglas Harkness said all Alberta had to do was ask and troops would be sent in, but provincial Forestry Minister Norman Willmore said it hadn’t reached emergency status yet.

Finally, after 19 days, an inch of rain fell and the crisis eased.

Meanwhile, 10 Quebec men at the Musreau Lake camp were charged with threatening their supervisor with an axe when he ordered them to the fireline. In Grande Prairie court, they chose 30 days in jail rather than pay a $50 fine.

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