Forest fires are nothing new in Canada these days, and right now we are dealing with several terrible ones in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
The forest fires of the past, while often not as large, were much more deadly and none were as deadly as the Matheson Fire, also known as the Great Northern Ontario Fire of 1916.
At the time, settlers were coming into the area of Black River, Matheson and Iroquois Falls in large numbers. The previous years had seen an influx of European settlement, and with that came the desire to clear the land and make it suitable for farming.
The most common practice at the time was slash and burn, which involved clearing the land through the use of controlled burns. Often, this method worked quite well but sometimes, it could prove disastrous and deadly.
During the summer of 1916, little rain fell leading to forests and underbrush that were tinder dry. In May, Ernest Read, a Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway engineer noted there were a number of fires burning in the bush and smoke was everywhere. This smoke would last for two months.
In the days that led up to July 29, settlers had set several small fires to clear out the land.
The fires slowly began to grow out of control, and as they did, each fire connected with another fire burning nearby on another property. The small brush fires were compounded by the fact that locomotive sparks had started a fire along the railway, while lightning started other fires.
Due to the fact that there was no forestry monitoring service at the time, and because smoke had already been covering the region for weeks due to smaller fires, there was nearly no warning when the fires started to grow.
All of these fires, from different sources, would merge together as they grew out of control, turning into one single large firestorm.
The firestorm was huge by this point, reaching 64 kilometres across and moving towards the communities of Iroquois Falls, Kelso, Cochrane, Nushka, Matheson and Ramore.
As the fire hit the communities, it completely wiped them out, burning everything in its path.
The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“The fire broke out at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon and was reported simultaneously at several points, forming a semi-circle from Bourkes to Hearst over a 100-mile frontage. Driven by forty miles-an-hour wind from the south the flames rolled over the countryside just like a heavy thunderstorm coming up ahead of a hurricane and with everything as dry as timber, there was never a chance for people to save anything.”
Harvey Monaghan was 13 years old when the fire hit Matheson and he would state quote:
“I was up on the roof, and they handed water up to me. It did catch fire a few times, a paper roof, you know, and I kept putting the flames out.”
Amelia Veitch, who was 20 when the fire hit, stated quote:
Sgt. Alfred Best, who had returned from the First World War after he was wounded, was in Cochrane when the fire hit the community. He would say afterwards, quote:
“God spare me from death by fire. I have seen sights at the front in the trenches that turn men sick, but never have I seen and never again do I want to see such utter misery and suffering as the women and children went through in this fire.”
This was the third time Cochrane had been destroyed by fire over the course of only six years. The first fire destroyed most of the community in 1910, followed the Great Porcupine Fire of 1911 that destroyed it again once it was rebuilt. Each time, the community rebuilt, and would so again after the devastating 1916 fire. The 1916 fire would be the last time the community would be destroyed.
The station agent had queried down the line regarding the danger to Cochrane, but he was given the answer that there was plenty of smoke but no fire. The town also had a water tower, water works and a volunteer fire brigade to protect it. With this false sense of security, people went to bed for the night. In the night, the fire roared from the south and surrounded the community as the fire brigade worked to fight it. The fire burned through the business section of town and the sound of exploding gas, bursting windows and the roar of the fire dominated everything in town. The fire then began to threaten the public school and the new Lady Minto Hospital with patients. Then, from sheer luck, a thunderstorm hit and drenched the community, saving the buildings. The only death in Cochrane would be a baby, forgotten in a store by its parents.
Iroquois Falls was one of the luckier communities, as it was not entirely burned, with the paper mills and one store surviving the blaze. The mills were saved thanks to the hard firefighting of employees who did not want to see the major industry of the area go up in flames. Considering several communities lost everything, the saving of the paper mills was a saving grace for the community. That being said, 15 people would die in the community due to the fire that blazed through town. At the time of the fire, Iroquois Falls had a population of about 400, which meant it lost three per cent of its population in the terrible fire.
In Nushka, the village priest, Wilfred Gagne, was arriving by train from a clerical retreat as he saw heavy smoke filling the air. The train’s conductor advised him not to leave the train as it was not safe. Instead of listening, Gagne left the train and led 35 people to the rail line. He then returned into the burning town and saved another 28 people. Sadly within a few hours, both groups had burned to death and been suffocated by the smoke. Only one man, who filtered the smoke through moist clay, survived. The town itself was completely destroyed, and only eight people were left in it after the fire. When the town was rebuilt, it was named Val Gagne in honour of the priest who gave his life to save others.
People would also flee the flames by diving into small lakes, or into the Black River.
Two individuals, Robert and Margaret Fyfe headed to a nearby lake and went chest deep into the lake. They waited as the fire approached and then as it reached the shore and was about to leap the small lake, he gave the word to dive below the water. They held their breath as long as they could while the fire passed over them. Margaret came up first and her eyes were scorched by smoke and burning sap, blinding her. Both would thankfully survive.
A group of 11 men, women and children tried to seek refuge from the fire in a well near Porquis Junction. When the fire came, the children were put in first, followed by the men and women who stood on boarding in the well at various depths to escape the flames. The person on the lowest level would fill a bucket with water and hand it to the person above him, and so on to cover those closer to the women at top of the well, who were covered in wet blankets, to protect them from the fire. Sadly, the well soon caved in, burying three men and five children. One man tried to save another, but he became stuck in the clay and earth and couldn’t help the women above him. The news report states quote:
“When the search parties reached the place, they found the three women under the blankets, and the fourth man deeply embodied in clay in an upright position with his head thrown back and his arms raised straight above his head.”
Duncan Graham took his wife and child and put them in a trench with blankets over them. He kept the blankets wet to protect them from the fire. As the fire came through, he would be seriously burned on his hands and face, with most of his clothes mostly burned from his body, but he survived as did his family.
Another group, 16 in total, are said to have taken refuge in a root cellar only to suffocate to death when the fire passed over them. Another story says 25 went into a barn for cover, and none would make it out alive.
One man is said to have been found sitting on a stump. When the body was touched, he fell over, a victim of smoke inhalation.
One member of a rescue expedition would state quote:
“For every body found along the railway tracks in in places where parties have thus far penetrated, one hundred may be lying under the ashes of the fire-swept country.”
Bill Fairburn, a prospector in the area, told The Globe quote:
“It came, sped by like a howling tornado, a living wave of flame, travelling at 60 miles an hour, and nothing lived in its wake. Matheson was in flames in a few minutes. I rushed all the women and children I could find to a freight train on a siding and sent them out as fast as I could. Others went down to the Black River and stayed there.”
Not all stories were tragic. A Mrs. John McCallum was with her children when the fire hit. Her husband was away at the time and the family chose to run as the fire began to approach. She relates her story, stating quote:
“My eldest boy, Richard, told me to go to an old disused well a quarter of a mile away, the only place where there was any water…A man named Frank Mulligan got down into the well, which is 11 feet deep and had 10 feet of water in it and he dipped up water for us, which we threw over our clothes.”
The entire family would survive, and Mulligan would prove to be a hero in the area. He would take his best horse and wagon and gallop to a school house where children were sheltered as the flames approached, saving their lives by getting them out of the area. As for Mrs. McCallum, the wind soon shifted and the entire family went down into the well, she relates, quote:
“It was a terrible time in the well. My 16-year-old daughter, Margaret, had put on three skirts when she left the house and when we left the well, she had practically no clothes on at all, as she had torn them off bit by bit and dipped them into the water, then handing the pieces of cloth to the younger children to suck and to put on their heads to protect them from the hot ashes.”
One 16-year-old girl who was not named reportedly carried her baby brother a considerable distance before finally succumbing to exhaustion, her legs burned to the knees, but she would survive. Another story tells of a search party finding a nine-year-old girl guarding two babies she had saved. She was badly burned but reportedly made no complaint.
One of the most amazing tales of survival came from the crew of a freight train that was loaded with a $10,000 steam shovel, 600 gallons of gasoline and camp supplies. The men soon discovered that their water tank was nearly empty due to the heat, and they were hemmed in by flames, with the track on fire in several cases. The men cut several of the cars loose and then crawled into the steel water tank while the engineer made a bold dash through the burning forest. Only a few miles from a tank to get more water, they encountered a freight train loaded with 150 people fleeing the flames. The engineer then backed his train down the track and the men in the water tank took turns throwing water on each other in the tank. Their faces were soon covered with blisters from the heat. The men were eventually able to reach the water tank and fill up to continue getting out of the area.
Even surviving the fire didn’t mean that people were out of danger yet. Supplies had been destroyed across the region, which was quite remote at that time. This led to a fear of starvation for those residents that had already lost everything.
On the Monaghan farm, one sack of flour was spared the flames and it was turned into biscuits to feed the survivors in the community. Other people in the area would eat potatoes that had been baked under the ground but were fine to eat. Some people said that bread that was abandoned at the time of baking was found later, ready to eat.
Relief trains began to arrive in the community, bringing supplies, clothes and food for those who were left alive. The Ontario government also made $25,000 available for relief.
By the time the fire was out thanks to heavy rains falling on July 31, it had burned an area of approximately 2,000 square kilometres. This area is larger than the size of Calgary, Toronto and Montreal combined. A total of 223 people were killed by the fire officially. That is the official mark, but some sources state that the number of dead could have been as high as 500. At least 34 bodies were on the platform of what remained of the rail station at Matheson, one of the few buildings to remain standing despite significant damage. It is the deadliest forest fire in Canadian history, and the size of the fire ranks it as the 12th largest forest fire in the nation’s history. Among the dead were many children, including infants as young as one month old.
The news of the fire spread across Canada. In Vancouver, the front page of the July 31, 1916, issue read in bold headlines, quote:
“Holocaust in Ontario ended by heavy rain. Half a dozen small towns almost destroyed by flames. Dead may number two hundred.”
At the time, it was known that 57 had died in Nushka, 34 in Matheson, 15 in Iroquois Falls and 15 in Ramore.
The newspaper stories at the time related that not a single house was left standing from Cochrane to Matheson, and 20 doctors and nurses were being kept busy in the area helping the injured. Dominion railway officials were notified by the government to place all available buildings, box cars and more at the disposal of the population. The cabinet of Sir Robert Borden also met in Ottawa to determine what could be done for assistance.
The Vancouver Daily World would report, quote:
The Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railroad would lose 20 railway buildings, including two complete railway stations. The line also lost 1,600 rods of fencing, 11,320 ties and tens of thousands of feet of rails that had been rendered useless. A steam railway ditcher and a rapid uploader were also damaged heavily. A total of 60 box cars in Iroquois Falls, all loaded with freight, were completely destroyed, and 30 box cars at different points along the rail line were lost. In all, the rail company lost 200 freight cars.
The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“All their stations between Bourkes and Porquis Junction, and all telegraph wires, are burnt down, while the railroad has been destroyed in sections for miles, the intense heat burning the rails like shavings.”
Despite the huge losses the railroad had, it did immediately get to work in providing relief for residents. This included outfitting train cars with supplies and food. A refrigerator car was also packed with ice and other perishables for the impacted residents.
According to some reports, a relief train that was sent in kept catching fire due to the heat still in the area. The train had to stop near the Englehart bridge due to flames still in the area. It was also reported that two cars attached to the train were filled with coffins.
Ontario faced a great deal of criticism due to the fact that it was the only province in Canada without adequate forest fire protection. The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“The government puts its faith in a patrol guard service and other precautions, which, according to Mr. Clyde Leavitt of the Conservation Commission, who has given exhaustive study to this subject is absolutely inadequate.
Due to the fire, the Forest Protection Branch of the Department of Lands, Forests and Mines was created. That department is now known as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Fishery. It also led to the Forest Fires Prevention Act in Ontario, which appointed a provincial forester to administer and oversee the implementation of the act. E.J. Zavitz was appointed as the first provincial forester, and he brought in J.H. White as his chief assistant. White then created protection districts, which were supervised by a chief ranger, with one or more deputy chiefs. Fire watch towers were also erected across the province, and 1,000 rangers were hired to patrol Ontario’s forests.
Provinces across the country began to invest in forest fire protection to prevent such a disaster of that scale from happening again.
The provincial government would also launch a commission to determine if the fire had been caused by the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway when they were burning a space for a right of way. Property owners who lost everything also put forward claims amounting to $350,000, or $8 million today, against the railway company.
The fire would also change the perspective for many about forest fires. Instead of seeing forest fires as something that could help a forest grow, they were seen as a negative, as something that had to be fought. This differs from today where many forest fire specialists state that you need to let some forest fires burn to improve the health of a forest.
Information from CBC, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Journal, Wikipedia, Sudbury.com, Black River-Matheson Public Library, Vancouver Daily World, Manitoba Free Press, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Vancouver Province, Winnipeg Tribune,