How forest fires shaped the history of Timmins

How forest fires shaped the history of Timmins 

18 March 2016

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Canada– You cannot talk about the history of Northern Ontario without talking about forest fires and their impact on the development of the region. The Great Porcupine Fire of 1911 almost wiped out the entire Ontario gold mining industry in one day; fortunately, the early investors and residents of the camp were made of stronger stuff and they chose to remain here and rebuild (and they most certainly reaped the rewards of their decisions!). Lesson learned: there is no escape route once the rail lines are destroyed.

Fast forward to 1916 – yet again, the north is threatened with huge forest fires, and Timmins, although not in the thick of it, certainly did not come out clean. Twenty homes were destroyed just west of the Mountjoy township line; luckily, the flames did not reach the downtown. However, the big story of that year was the huge fire that took out Cochrane, Matheson, Kelso, Nushkah (Val Gagne), Ramore and all points in between. The fires all started in earnest on Saturday, July 29th; according to the Porcupine Advance reporter who went into the fire zone on Sunday via a T&NO rail car, “Cochrane is in ruins, Matheson is laid flat, save for the flag pole on the station garden plot.” He also reported that he “visited several scenes where there was not a stick the size of a man‘s arm left to mark their former sites.”

Relief work out of the Porcupine took hold with a train to Porquis Junction; Drs. Hainey and Widdifield delivered medical supplies to Dr. Mahoney in Iroquois Falls. Using a hand car, they proceeded along the line southwards and delivered much needed aid to the victims in Matheson, Montieth and Nushka; they worked for hours on end tending to the wounded who wandered in from the bush where they had fled.

On Monday morning, another train left the Porcupine with emergency supplies rounded up by local residents including Mayor Wilson, Reverend Allan, Dr. McInnis, Rev. Patterson, Lt. Kennedy, Tom King, Jack Dalton, Charles Pierce, J. Myers and K.F. Delong. Godfrey Proulx also went along with the rescue team as he had received word that his brother, sister-in-law and three nephews had lost their lives on their farm just outside of Cochrane.

The stories collected by those relief workers were heartbreaking; as the train pulled into Porquis, the women and children who had borne the strain well, broke down once they realized they were safe. Every refugee the Timmins men encountered had lost at least one family member. Rev. Allan came upon one young girl who had lost all 22 members of her family; he brought her to Timmins and found her a home in the community. Mrs. Smith and her daughter collapsed on the train platform, clearly exhausted by their ordeal; the young girl hugged her little fox terrier, the only thing they could save from their home. Horrible stories of burn victims were recounted in the papers for days after the fire; Postmaster Watt and Dr. Reed of Kelso were both found dead, victims of the smoke and flame. “Little Father” Gagne of the Catholic church at Nushka was found dead; he had only been in the community for a few days, having been brought to the north by Father Theriault. The community was renamed in his honour – Val Gagne.

Iroquois Falls did not escape the fire either; 33 houses burned down, and at the Abitibi Pulp Co., all the camps, saw mill, block piler and 40,000 cords of wood were lost. Death

tolls climbed as search parties made their way to remote farms and houses along the rail lines.

Members of the 228th battalion stationed at the Borden Camp were commandeered to help in the fire zone. Under the direction of Captain Piercy, 109 officers and men were stationed strategically along the line. They helped set up the morgue at Matheson (since the cemetery was there); the undertakers were assisted in their task by the soldiers (a unique pre-war zone experience for the boys). They also set up 80 tents for refugees at both Matheson and Montieth.

The cause of the fire was attributed to settlers who used slash fires to clear their land. The bush had been particularly dry that summer, so the fires had plenty of fuel and spread quickly. It is estimated that the Matheson fire covered over 500,000 acres and claimed 223 lives. Much hand-wringing occurred after the fire; Ontario laws were considered almost criminally lax. There were no restrictions preventing slash fires and the fire rangers had no authority to advise or interfere with settlers who wanted to use the method. Reforms to the system were urged by those living in the North; more manpower was needed as well, as there were only 8 supervisors to cover the ten million acres of Ontario forest. Lesson learned: no slash fires and more rangers in the bush desperately needed. Nice thought, but it would take one more great Northern fire (Haileybury, 1922) to get proper forest fire protection in the province.

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