General Articles

RED HELL ON THE MISSISSAGI

Even the fleet-footed deer stands hypnotized when fire stalks the forest, leaping half-mile lakes and exploding trees like bombs

BRUCE McLEOD August 15 1948
General Articles

RED HELL ON THE MISSISSAGI

Even the fleet-footed deer stands hypnotized when fire stalks the forest, leaping half-mile lakes and exploding trees like bombs

BRUCE McLEOD August 15 1948

RED HELL ON THE MISSISSAGI

BRUCE McLEOD

Even the fleet-footed deer stands hypnotized when fire stalks the forest, leaping half-mile lakes and exploding trees like bombs

A PUMPMAN pushed up off the plank flooring of the ranger cabin and wagged a finger at a ridge of timber across Peshu Lake. "Look at ’er go!” he shouted. "A red heller jumpin’ the bush with seven-league boots!”

Tom Cassidy, the chief ranger, stopped sucking on his pipe. "She’s crowned!” he said. "The devil himself wouldn’t be likin’ what’s loose in the bush tonight.”

I squinted into the smoke haze that ringed the lake with a dirfy necklace. Far away, across the crowm of the bush, I spotted a flash of red flicking in and out of the pine trees like the tongue in a snake’s mouth.

Fire !

A red monster dancing like a drunken jitterbug through the evergreen roof of the Mississagi forest .

500 miles north and west of Toronto, in the angle between Lakes Huron and Superior.

A jangle of bells called Cassidy inside. When he came out again his Irish face was crinkled up in a frown. "Fire’s movin’ fast, on Mountain Ash Lake,” he said. "Looks like we’ll lose a tower there. Got two new fires at Lake* Duval. And all hell’s busted out at Kindiogami.”

Charlie Brown, a ranger, poked at the lumps of fly bites behind his ears, then wet a finger and stuck it in (he air. "Wind’s shifting,” he said solemnly. "There’ll he no sleep tonight.”

I knew’ what he meant—-and why rangers and lumberjacks from North Bay to Sault Ste. Marie and from Port Arthur to Cochrane were calling these tortured 400,000 acres of pine, balsam, spruce and birch a corner of hell on earth.

Out there in the ravaged bush I had seen some of the 2,300 men who were battling this fire—one of the greatest and costliest in Ontario’s forest history. Weary and fly-bitten, they had been struggling for 15 days along an 80-mile front to strait-jacket this red killer. And everywhere they were losing, ground.

More than 6,000 bush fires stalk the timberlands of Canada ever^year. Put together, they would burn a path a mile wide all the way from Halifax to Vancouver and northwrard to Alaska. A check of statistics shows an average annual loss of between $4 millions and $5 millions, based on "stumpage” rates set by the Government. This year has been particularly bad, with losses already estimated at $40 millions. Ontario has accounted for a major portion

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of this loss with an estimated $35 millions written off in forest charcoal and ash.

This figure may be subject to revision downward once forestry officials have been able to visit the burned-over areas and see exactly what the flames killed or spared. But August and September are considered among the worst bush fire months in the year and rangers everywhere know that the disaster of Mississagi may well be repeated in the late summer or early fall unless hunters, fishermen, tourists and bushmen observe every precaution.

It is shocking to note that in the 25 years after 1917 forest fires in Ontario burned over 16,000 square miles, an area almost as large as Nova Scotia without Cape Breton.

“Since Confederation,” says Robson Black, president and general manager of the Canadian Forestry Association, “we have burned five times as many trees in Canada as have been cut by all the lumbermen who ever laid an axe to our forests. We have burned up in forest fires more human lives than ever were lost to savage tomahawks or rifles.”

In doing this, Canadians have witnessed many spectacular conflagrations. But seldom a worse one than in the forests of Mississagi and Chapleau.

Closeup of a Monster

Actually, this fire was many fires, paced by two major blazes racing toward a tragic junction at Peshu Lake, 60 miles north of Thessalon, a town on the highway between »Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie (see map). The Mississagi fire started about 40 miles north of Thessalon and spread out, mostly to the north and east; the Chapleau blaze began at Flame Lake 40 miles farther north and blew south and east. Both began about May 25. By June 15 they had become one big fire. By June 22 the first big rain began to dampen the hot forest and quench the fire. But as late as the second week in July, men were still patrolling the smoking land, jabbing at red embers that seared their boots. It takes a long time to beat a big fire.

When I arrived at Peshu the fires had almost joined. For hours I had watched flame flattening timber over 800 square miles of wilderness. From the air and on the ground I had got a frightening closeup of a bush fire on the loose.

I’d seen trees that had taken 250 years to grow, bleed fire and fry in their own juices. I’d watched clumps of red-hot ash bigger than my fist riding

the wind; and stood unbelieving as flame jumped lakes half a mile wide.

Two thousand feet in the air I’d felt the heat of the inferno below; seen the blackened scars where the fire had pushed angry fingers into the green of the bush—scars that would take 80 years to heal. At 5,000 feet I’d felt our Canuck buck wildly, caught in an updraught of smoke and ash. I’d seen moose swimming for their lives in fire-ringed lakes and deer hypnotized by the flames.

Now, chatting with the men at Peshu Lake deputy-ranger headquarters, I remembered another man and what he’d told me an hour earlier. We’d beached our plane at the other end of the lake near Camp 38 of the McFadden Lumber Co. Ashore, lumberjacks were fighting fire less than 20 yards from a bunk house. A burly

Swede had come off a line of hose to help secure the plane. Standing on a pontoon he had splashed lake water over the grimy stubble of whisker fringing his sunand fire-blistered cheeks. His shoulders had sagged as he had turned red-rimmed eyes on the sky and said hoarsely:

“If God ain’t too busy tonight, He’d better send us rain. A whole helluva lot of rain. Or there ain’t goin’ to be no Mississagi timber left. And no camps, no game, no fish. No nothin’ but the biggest, blackest graveyard you ever seen.”

The mixed reverence and profanity of that tired Swede seemed like a bleak amen to the prayers of thousands in the north country. For 15 days the fire had been running amuck. Everyone knew that no power on earth could bring it under control. But no one could guess that it would be another 12 days and nights before the heavens were to heed their prayers.

Forty miles to the north the town of Chapleau on the Canadian Pacific mainline was threatened. A twin prong of fire bad eaten to within a mile of the community. Boxcars, lining a nearby rail siding, stood ready to load 2,800 townspeople for flight.

At Blind River on the North Channel of Lake Huron, 70-odd miles to the south, smoke was so thick motorists drove with their headlights on at two o’clock in the afternoon. Lakes within a hundred-mile radius were smoked out, grounding all aircraft. Along the White River near Blind River, cottagers being evacuated by truck had to use flashlights to find their way in broad daylight.

Smoke from the fire had blotted out the sun over Washington, D.C., 1,000 miles away. Trans-Canada Air Lines pilots reported heavy smoke at 10,000 feet. Ash from Ontario had fallen on Texas.

Fifty million acres of Ontario bush-

land were closed to traffic. The area (as large as England, Scotland and Wales put together) was described as “tinder-dry”—“an explosive torch already ignited.” Reinforcements were being rushed by plane from Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Kirkland Lake, Desbarats, Franz, Blind River and Thessalon.

More than 35 mills and lumber camps had been closed and the workers conscripted by the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests to fight the flames for 50 cents an hour. At Port Arthur, four men had been fined for refusing to fight a bush fire. There had been many miraculous escapes among the smoke-begrimed men on the fire line. At Rouelle Lake, six miles east of Peshu, “Slim” Wilson and “Red” Dickenson had been walled off from their comrades by racing flames.

“She went around us quicker’n you could spit,” Wilson told me. “We took to the lake. Stood all night in water up to our chins. Had a wet blanket around our heads. Couldn’t make up our minds whether to drown or burn. So we just got stubborn and lived.”

In a savage fight near Nemegos on the CPR line, 42 men suddenly found themselves sealed off by flames on a narrow neck of land. They tumbled into a lake and lay there for an hour until the fire burned itself out. “We splashed one another to keep hair on our heads and skin on our faces,” one man related later. “And after it was over we walked out through an ankledeep sea of hot ash.”

Flight Into Inferno

In the air, pilots of the Provincial Air Service, sleepless and unshaven, their faces shot with fatigue, continued to haul men and equipment to areas beyond the reach of roads. They set their ships down on smoke-filled lakes whipped by treacherous crosswinds. They raced into ravaged areas to rescue trappers and rangers caught in the death dance of fire.

When we took off in a Fleet Canuck operated by Lakeland Skyways from Trout Lake near North Bay, we could see the smoke haze lying across Lake Nipissing—200 miles from the fire. By the time we had skirted Española, west of Sudbury, the afternoon sun was a ball of crimson through the blue haze that hung at 2,000 feet. Don McKay, my pilot, decided to risk a straight cross-country run to Peshu Lake.

Suddenly we were in it.

There was no fire here now—but it had been. Great, black gouges had been ripped in the green carpet below us. Thousands of trees lay strewn across the tortured terrain. They looked like charred matchsticks, tumbled helter-skelter by some giant’s fist. Thousands of other trees, still standing with their feet in furrows of ash, reared naked stems to the sky.

The fire had run like paint spilled on a floor. It Fiad flattened trees, left others green and untouched. The ugliest scars seemed to follow the bush roads and streams. Only a day earlier, pine and balsam had stood here thicker than quills on a porcupine’s tail. Now, nothing remained but a blackened desert.

McKay dipped the plane sharply and sho u t ed, “Look!”

Straight ahead I saw the first of the many fires I was to see in the next few hours. Three plumes of smoke, black at the base and white in the head, climbed out of the timber rimming Lake Duval. There was no sign of flame. The fire here was on its belly, crawling in the green timber.

Mile after mile of burned-out timber rolled beneath us. In one section alone I counted 23 separate puffs of smoke.

But I didn’t see flame until we nearel Peshu Lake.

It showed up first like a red ball rolling across a pool table. Then, as we got closer, it wasn’t a ball any longer. It was fire—ugly and uncontrolled. It was splashed across the crest of a hill, running crimson fingers through the hair of the trees. It belched black, slate-grey, yellow, white and orange smoke. We felt the suction claw at the little plane.

McKay set the Canuck down. We waded ashore and hiked a few hundred yards up a trail to where a dozen men with shovels and axes were attacking slash and turning up the sandy earth. Some were stripped to the waist; others wore plaid shirts. Some had handkerchiefs over their noses. Most of them looked as though they had beer, made up for a minstrel show.

The fire’s breath slapped me in the face. Ash and live embers churned around us. The rumble of the flames sounded like water tumbling over a cliff. I began to cough and spit, Suddenly the ground shook and a terrible thunder crashed about us. A big tree 50 yards away had blown up like a bomb.

A squat little French lumberjack, with a pot stomach and bowlegs, leaned on his pick and shook a shower of sparks off his hat. Tobacco juice oozed from the corners of his lips and trickled down his chin. “Dat fire!” he spat. “She stinks worse dan dead fish.”

They had three lines of hose on this fire. Pumps, driven by gas engines, sucked lake water through a two-inch intake and spit it out 45 gallons a minute from inch-and-a-half hose. 1 watched jets of water shot 75 feet into masses of flame. The fire gulped it with a hiss then roared on as if there were no water in the world.

“Can you hold her?” I shouted at the straw boss.

He scraped flies and sweat off his face. “Maybe. Maybe not,” he replied “Right now we got her by the ears But give her a wind and she’ll jump that fire line and be the hell and gone before we could lay a hose on her.”

It was the same story in a dozen other “hot spots” where men were fighting fire against staggering odds. In some places, bulldozers were being used to smash trees and rip up earth. Trucks, canoes, dozens of aircraft, hand pumps, 300 power pumps, a million and a half feet of hose, thousands of shovels and axes had been thrown into the battle.

Man-made Rain

Nothing was being overlooked. Officials were even trying to make rain. Aided by the National Research Council and the Dominion Meteorological Service, forestry experts had shipped 500 pounds of dry ice into the fire area. Dry ice pellets (89 degrees below zero) had been seeded from special planes into cloud formations over Gogama on the Canadian National line and Mississagi. Some rain had fallen—but it was a thimbleful compared to the threeday downpour needed to quench this inferno.

Back of Blue Lake, where 20 men were fighting a 5,000-acre fire, I talked with Charlie Belisle, a pump operator. Charlie had slugged his 120-pound pump on his back over a rugged portage. Fly bites bigger than 50-cent pieces spotted his shoulders and arms. Sweat oozed out of him like water on wax paper.

He jabbed a thumb at eight men swinging axes. They were cutting a shoulder-width path through the scrub and slash so a line of hose could be played on the fire. “That’s real work brother,” he said. “You slug 10 hours

maybe 12. You got fire in your face, smoke in your eyes and flies and sweat on your back. By night, you’ll be black as the trees and too tired to eat. Back in town I know guys who wouldn’t hold open a door for 50 cents an hour.”

“You seem to be beating this one,” 1 said.

He shrugged. “You can’t trust her. She may look licked but all the time she’s just gone down in the roots. She’ll lie there dozin’ for a while— maybe for days. Then comes a wind and she’s awake—a runnin’, stinkin’ fury.”

To Charlie, as to every other fire fighter, fire in the bush is “she.” He hates, respects and fears “her.” He knows she’s cunning and full of tricks. Sometimes you can walk within 200 yards of her and not know she’s there. She can crawl like an earthworm or race like an express train. She can kill without marking her victims. The history of bush fire in the north country shows that hundreds of people who sought escape in mine shafts, gullies and wells died where they huddled. The fire never touched them; it smothered them.

Nor is water always a haven. Many persons lying in the muck and mud of shallow streams or swamps have been parboiled by the water they thought would be their salvation. In swamps and peat bogs, fire has played strange pranks, too. In one instance, fire ate its way into the depths of a peat bog near Red Lake, Ont., and burned there during an entire winter.

Fighting bush fire is a tremendous task. Hundreds of men swinging axes, picks and shovels, is only a part of the complex picture. From the chief of the division of forest protection at his government desk to the regional and district foresters hundreds of miles away; from the chief rangers and their deputies to the warehousemen, towermen, dispatchers, fire bosses, pumpmen and patrol crews, everyone has a role to play.

The millions of acres of forest stretching across the squared-off townships of each forestry district are kept under dawn-to-dusk scrutiny by the hawk-eyed men who perch atop the 100-foot steel towers used as lookouts. On a clear day, a towerman can see 50 miles in all directions.

When fire breaks out, action goes something like this:

The towerman at Rawhide Lake puts down his binoculars and bends over his

chart table. He squints at his map and takes a sight on the plume of smoke, and cranks his telephone.

“This is Rawhide,” he says. “Smoke observed. Bearing three-two-seven. About 14 miles. Somewhere back of Distant Lake.”

At deputy headquarters the chief ranger reaches toward a large wall map. Every tower is circled in black. Through the centre of the tower location is a weighted length of string attached to a tack. The chief ranger pulls out the Rawhide cord and stretches it diagonally across the map to the northwest. He anchors it with the tack.

He cranks his phone. “Kirkpatrick, you there? Kirkpatrick!”

“Yeah, I’m here,” replies the towerman at Kirkpatrick Lake. “I heard Rawhide. But I can’t see a thing. Too hazy. Maybe . . . hey, wait! I got it! Bearing two-nine. I’d say she was near the boundary of townships 2A and 2B.”

The chief reaches for the Kirkpattrick cord. “Two-nine.” He stretches it until it intersects the Rawhide string. He hangs up and hollers, “Charlie!” Together the chief and his deputy study the point of intersection of the two cords.

“There she is,” says the chief. “North of Distant Lake, maybe on the Kindiogami River. Get four or five men in there. There’s a lumber camp nearby. Maybe they can get men on it fast.”

Sometimes four or five towers can get a bearing on a single fire. If no cross bearing is available, a plane goes out for a look. Trucks or plane haul in men and equipment.

Reports on new fires and the progress made by old ones are radioed from ranger headquarters to the nearest district forester. He, in turn, radios daily reports to the regional forester.

Battle Headquarters

At North Bay, 1 talked with E. L. Ward, a regional forester with 45,000 square miles of northern bush under his wing.

He was having a rough time of it. Dozens of fires were racing through his region—including the two giant blazes at Mississagi and Chapleau. His phone jangled constantly. When someone wasn’t calling him, he was calling Sudbury, Powassan, Timagami, Toronto, Latchford, Sturgeon Falls—anywhere

and everywhere he might scrounge a few thousand feet of hose or locate more men to throw into the fight.

“We could use 100,000 men,” he said wearily, “and still not. be able to hold t hese babies.”

Lightning bad started eight new fires in as many hours. A west wind of 30 miles an hour was whipping the whole area, reviving fires thought dead. There was no sign of rain. Again and again came the call for more men, more pumps, more hose.

Like a general directing an army. Ward mapped his strategy. Men were yanked from one fire and shipped to another. Out of warehouses came reserve supplies of pumps and hose. At a single crack" I heard him order 75,000 feet of hose and 23 pumps into the Chapleau area. He didn’t have to tell me things were getting worse there.

“We still don’t respect our forest heritage,” he said wearily. “Human carelessness is responsible for 80%, of all fire in the bush.”

Statistics back him up. Of the 0,000 forest fires in Canada last year, campers were responsible for 18%,; smokers 17% ; settlers 15%,; railways six per cent; incendiary six per cent; industrial operations three per cent; miscellaneous and unknown 17%, and lightning 17%,.

You can’t assess the damage a fire does. Not only is valuable timber destroyed but soil is ruined Fishing

is spoiled; wild life obliterated. Who can estimate the damage done to the tourist industry by a bush fire on the rampage? And what value could be placed on the 80 years it takes a fireravaged area to hide its scars beneath new growth?

At Mississagi and Chapleau, salvage operations by the McFadden Lumber Co. may somewhat brighten the dismal picture. But when they’re through, that area will still be, as the Swede said, “the biggest, blackest graveyard you ever seen.”

I stood on the porch of a cookhouse one night and watched a long finger of the Mississagi fire creep down the side of a hill toward the lake. Fire in the bush at night is both beautiful and terrible. For a moment it glowed like a strip of hot wire, Then it smeared the white pine and balsam like blood soaking into a handkerchief. Sparks and smoke churned against the night sky, tarnishing the moon.

Behind me the camp cook said: “Back there I fished trout—the hungriest trout in the world. They won’t he hungry now. They’ll be dead, floating belly up in ash-filled water.”

I thought of the two trappers who were said to have started this holocaust. “Desert makers,” one ranger had called them.

And I wondered how much longer Canadians were going to go on making deserts because they trifle with fire. -fc