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September 12, 2003

A Look at Fires, Firefighting, and Old Lookout Towers

We could not survive without the friendly fires in our homes to keep us warm each winter. But fire can also be a foe that burns homes and kills or injures people. It can also create devastating holocausts in our forests as seen in British Columbia this summer. 

Within a couple of kilometers of where I live in Chisholm Township there have been at least 3 fires in our history with loss of life over the years. A 1908 fire burned through the area destroying thousands acres and there were many brush fires caused by the old Fossmill logging railway engine. Fourteen million feet of lumber burned at Fossmill in 1931 and the mill burned in 1934. Most of these things took place before the intense precautions, regulations, excellent surveillance, quick response and highly trained firefighters of today.

The best examples of early devastation are the several fires in NE Ontario: in Porcupine in 1914, Matheson in 1916, and Temiskaming in 1922. A look at the photos in Michael Barnes book Killer in the Bush (1987) shows these communities looking like the bombed cities of WWI & II.

In the Porcupine Fire 500,000 acres or 781 square miles were burned and Cochrane, South Porcupine, and Pottsville were entirely destroyed. Seventy-three deaths were recorded in that fire but it is believed that many other people working in the bush were killed.

The Matheson Fire was the worst in Canadian history with 243 known dead in several communities. The fire covered 24 townships burning 20 completely. In the Temiskaming fire 43 people died and 1565 homes were destroyed.

There have been increasing efforts over the years to prevent and control forest fires including the Fire Prevention Act that evolved primarily as a result of the fires above. In 1924 the Provincial Air Service began to use planes to discover and fight fires. Many fires are caused by carelessness and there are many each year, for example, in Algonquin Park that are quickly suppressed. Volunteer fire departments and emergency response plans have made a big difference in isolated or smaller locations.

The Restoule Provincial Park Tower Trail booklet showing the tower.

Lookout Towers

From an historical perspective Fire Towers played an important role in fire prevention until the 1970's when more sophisticated methods were developed. In the 1920's wooden towers sprang up across Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. They were eventually placed on high ground in 320 locations across Ontario and had well trained staff and radio communication. The wooden towers were replaced by 80' steel towers, and later by 100' towers.

I recently saw a fascinating National Film Board film called Smoke and Weather which described the training and work of lookout men . There are experiments today in using video cameras in towers to scan areas and send the pictures to a control location.

The history of fire lookouts has been preserved in the U.S. by the Forest Fire Lookout Association with many chapters and an annual convention. Dozens of lookouts have been preserved as tourist attractions and as historical sites symbolizing forest conservation. (see www.firelookouts.org)

Canada is well behind the U.S. but I have been in touch with Clayton Self (clay.kim@rogers.com) who has taken a significant step toward preserving their history in Ontario. He started as a fan of the old CBC television series Forest Rangers still seen in reruns. His website (www.geocities.com/ontarioftl/) provides a wide range of information on existing fire towers, old locations and the life of a towerman and includes many photos.

The Fire Tower display at the Algonquin Park Visitors Centre on Hwy 60 showing a model tower in a glass case, a cupola with equipment, and an Otter plane used for fire surveillance. Doug Mackey photo.

The website notes that many of the towers were blown up, pulled down or disassembled for safety reasons. Some have simply had their cupolas removed. One has been restored and relocated to the Tweed Heritage Centre and another to the Canadian Firefighters Museum in Port Hope. Some others have been restored including a training tower at Dwight and the well known tower in Temagami.

There are several unmaintained towers in our area including one in Boulter Township, North Bay and Marten River. There were also towers at the Ski Hill and at McConkey's Corners. Restoule Provincial Park has preserved one as a part of a 7km trail with 14 natural and cultural heritage stops along the way including an old mica mine. The Tower built in 1954 was used until 1969 and rests on high ground with a remarkable view.

In a recent conversation with Clayton Self he told how he visited an old tower recently to find it being dismantled by a man who had bought it from the local municipality. He was moving it to Parry Sound where he is going to restore it and share it with the public. I recently reported on a fire tower that could be a part of a proposed trail at Brent.

Towermen travelled great distances to come and go to work and spent long, often boring hours scanning the forests. Bad weather often swayed the towers and occasionally lightning would set the tower aglow. They made an important contribution and their work and the towers should not be forgotten.

As I write the worst is over in British Columbia even though there are 700 small fires still burning. With climate change and strange weather patterns Ontario may be faced with some serious fires among the hundreds we have each year. Fortunately we have outstanding detection, quick response and highly trained personel to fight anything that may arise.

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