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The Bark Lake Fire of 1949

April 14, 2024

Leonard Hoyle, Brian Sharples and Albert Hoyle hunting, burned land, between Irondale and Burnt Rivers, after the 1913 fire.

“Conscript All Over 16: Fear Six Settlements in Haliburton Doomed”

 By Guy Scott

July and August are forest fire season in the “bush” areas of Ontario. Dry, hot weather leaves the bush tinder-dry and subject to fires: man-made or from natural causes such as lightning. Throughout the history of the Kinmount area, forest fires have been part of local lore. Kinmount has been fortunate to not have been as devastated as many other communities in Ontario by forest fires. But we have had a few.

The summer of 1949 was one of the driest on record. By late August, dozens of small forest fires had broken out all over east-central Ontario. The largest forest fire was called the Bark Lake Fire after its place of origin near Irondale. At its zenith, the fire covered 10,000 acres in Snowdon Township, and pushed to within one mile of Minden. Fire fighters drew their battle lines along the roads: County Road #1 from Kinmount to Haliburton and Highway #503. The land between these two routes was basically abandoned and left to burn. There were very few homes in this area between the two braches of the Burnt River, and except for a few cottages, there were no structures lost.

The overwhelmed fire fighting crews were soon exhausted and in need of more bodies. For the first time in peacetime, local conscription was declared. All able-bodied men were called up to fight the forest fires. Kinmount residents were forced to be temporary fire fighters, but given the direct threat to the village, nobody objected!

Here is how a writer from the Toronto Telegram described the scene:

“With bulldozers, gasoline pumps, trucks, planes and still the best firefighting equipment of all, a man with a shovel and plenty of energy—the firefighters are entering their fifth day of conflict. Driving last night from Irondale to Minden was like driving through Pompeii in its last days, the London Blitz, plain Hell and fairyland. Weary men—still fighting, still losing after four days, their heavy flannel shirts singed, lined the road, where bulldozers had obliterated into the sandy ridge a windbreak 40 feet wide.

Tonight here was clear as a bell, with blue stars gazing in coal black sky, not choked by towering flames and pink smoke visible for miles. Fighting fire with fire, it is hoped the firefighters can pin the flames. Eastward, nothing remains to check the raging red giant, but Bark Lake and tiny Miserable Lake—with a mile of absolutely bone-dry bush between them.

Dirty, stinking, singed and blistered, dead-tired and magnificent, the men and boys—so many seem to be little fellows, shorter by feet than the shovels they wield—will get a hand only from the ‘best woodman of all,’ the beaver.

Meanwhile, the firefighters squat all night along the plowed road, or come back from the wall of flames to where campfires shed a gentler warmth and hot tea simmers all night. From the road back into no man’s land, between the main fire and the back fires, fiery sentinels blaze up into the skyline: the campfires of a bivouacking army. Stretching for miles, it is a beautiful, tragic sight.

A million tiny fires twinkle like fairy lanterns through the smoky gloom, eating away at the breast high, crumbly, golden fern, dead branches, twigs and logs, and the year’s accumulation of dead leaves, that hissing, crackling red giant is racking forward to gobble. As the burnt over belt grows, the main fire is steered eastward into the worthless pine and poplar long since cut over. No settlements lie in the fire’s path that way.

But the men slave on when the minutes remain. At any moment a treacherous wind may switch and send the fire in to envelop an isolated farm or even a whole village.

Incredibly fast, the flames travel using better Panzer tactics than the Germans ever did. The red waves wash from treetop to treetop overhead, with burning ashes showing down to exploit and mop-up the untouched undergrowth below.

But the men still fight on.”

As the Bark Lake Fire petered out eastward, a new fire threatened Kinmount from the west. A small forest fire near Davis Lake required a further 400 firefighters to stop the blaze along the Davis Lake Road. Fanned by high winds, the second fire was stopped just two miles west of Kinmount. Several cottages were destroyed, but the Davis Lake Fire burnt a mere 1,000 acres! Finally wet weather arrived to reduce the forest fire threat and the danger passed. The area between the forks of the Burnt River was left a charred wasteland for many years, until Mother Nature replenished her domain.”

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