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The Great Forest Fires

June 2, 2023

Three Brothers Falls in the Late 19th Century and Autumn 2022

There has not been a massive forest fire in the Kawartha Lakes region for generations. Relative to some regions, like California, which tends to burn frequently, the forests of the Kawarthas are not fire prone. Today, if a blaze breaks out, there is an expectation that it will be supressed, though fire is a natural part of an ecosystem. In a warm, humid climate, forests grow and decompose rapidly, while in a cooler, drier climate, both growth and decomposition are slower, and fire can serve to break down detritus. But for many years now, it has been government policy to suppress all fires, to protect local residents and their property.

The Kawarthas have a human fire history that dates back for millennia. Since time immemorial, local residents and their fires have shaped the landscape. But in the nineteenth century, the way that people were interacting with the forests fundamentally changed, as in about a generation, practically all of the large, straight, ‘virgin’ pines that could be floated down some watercourse to a mill or transportation route were harvested and sold.

In the nineteenth century, this harvesting was not clear-cutting. Labourers felled the trees with axes, chopped off the limbs, and then hacked the tree trunks into logs and timbers which could be managed by horses. The largest timbers, ship’s masts, were massive, and typically required twelve horses to drag them to a watercourse. Given the technology and economics of the day, there was little that the lumberjacks could do besides leave all of the tree tops, limbs and wood chips behind. Once the forest canopies were opened, and massive amounts of pine slash had dried for a year or two, it made great kindling. As practically all of the merchantable pines were cut, the forests became a tinderbox that only needed a spark to ignite.

All it might take to start a forest fire was a bolt of lighting, a farmer’s burn that escaped or a campfire that got out of control. Across northeastern North America, massive fires raged through the forests, and politically, it turned into a blame game. Was it careless campers who were causing the fires? Or irresponsible farmers? The fact that firms marketing wood products, who were led by some of the most prominent and powerful businessmen of their day, had significantly altered the ecology of the forests to make them more fire prone, was not a reality that public society would recognize. So, restrictions were placed on agricultural burning and camping. The concerns that campers are a major cause of forest fires dates from this period—subsequently addressed in major PR campaigns like Smokey the Bear’s “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

Starting in the late nineteenth century, the forests of the Upper Trent Watershed burned, repeatedly. Fire was such a problem that it prompted the Canadian Government to create a commission, the Trent Watershed Survey. It concluded that between 1870 and 1912, 620,000 acres of the Upper Trent Watershed had burned at least once, more than half had burned at least twice, and some locations had burned eight times. There was no significant pinery in the region that had escaped fire.

By 1870 much of the pine in Dudley had been destroyed by fire. Major blazes in 1872 claimed parts of Glamorgan, Guilford, Harvey and Verulam, including the Eagle Lake Dam. Fenelon Falls lumbermen Henry Greene & John A. Ellis lost their shanties in 1874. There was a large fire around Nogies’ Creek the next year and another claimed several bridges between Gooderham and the Burleigh Road the following year. In 1877 two large fires hit Glamorgan, and another singed Monmouth in 1879. Parts of Glamorgan and Monmouth burned in 1882. An 1888 blaze destroyed the Bow Creek dam and an area of Snowdon and Glamorgan. A major fire hit the same townships again in 1894, following one in Monmouth and Glamorgan two years earlier. But these were not the largest fires.

In the late nineteenth century, three massive conflagrations tore through the Upper Trent Watershed. In 1881, parts of Snowdon, Somerville, and Chandos burned, in a season when there were numerous brush fires. Fire also levelled part of Minden. The smoke made for hazy days as far away as Lindsay. In the summer and fall of 1887 an inferno again darkened the skies of Lindsay and Bobcaygeon, tearing through Anson, Hindon, Stanhope, Sherburne, Ridout, Snowdon, and Glamorgan. The smoke in Lindsay was so dense that it burned eyes and visibility was less than two blocks. The steamer Esturion (operated by the Boyd family’s Trent Valley Navigation Company) got lost for three hours on Sturgeon Lake because the haze was so dense that they could not see where they were going. The blaze razed Furnace Falls, then a small but promising mining centre, consuming the St. Lawrence Foundry Company’s mills, and Parry & Mills smelting works. Other than the train station, Furnace Falls was never rebuilt and became a ghost town. Afterwards the post office was located in a private home. In 1891 a very large fire started in T.A. Hazlitt’s Cavendish limits, and burned through much of the district’s pineries, reaching Glamorgan, Monmouth and Harvey.

Once a fire tore through a region, a portion of the timber would be ruined and the rest would have to be got out quickly. Most of the trees that were killed were still worth harvesting until they were perforated with borers—lumbermen usually figured they had one season. The Snowdon fire of 1887 forced Boyd to get out 100,000 extra logs—more than doubling his usual cut. The following year he ran ten shanties. This meant multiplying most of the infrastructure dedicated to getting logs out—cadge teams, shanties, bob sleds, river drivers, capstan cribs, and so on. The fires often affected many companies at the same time, and when they were all trying to multiply their shanty workforces, wages spiked. These massive cuts then produced a glut of saw logs, far more than the mills could process in a season. The following winter most wanted a small cut. After a series of fires increased his cut in the previous years, in 1890 Boyd ran only two camps—and it was difficult to dispose of the productive infrastructure when many companies were scaling back simultaneously. Having to cope with these major fires made it much more difficult for the firms to operate.

In response to these disasters, the companies helped the government organize fire rangers, half of their pay from the province, the balance from the firm holding the limit. The going wage was $2 a day, or rarely $3 in the 1890s. Boyd appointed his first joint rangers in 1886, the year after the program was established—though he had employed men on his own account for at least the previous fourteen years. Fire rangers were usually appointed at the firms’ suggestion, and most often were company shanty bosses or jobbers (contractors who cut logs for the firms). Boyd’s rangers were Nelson Vannier, James Sedgwick and William Robinson from 1887 to 1889; William Creswell, Nelson Vannier and James Sedgwick in 1890; John Sedgwick, James Sedgwick, William Creswell, Joseph Hadley and John Pearson for 1891. Creswell continued to serve in 1901.

This arrangement seems to have worked fairly well for all concerned—the companies had some of their best managers preventing and stamping out fires; foremen got summer work; and the government benefited from the strong interest that companies took in preventing fire. In 1906, Boyd required his fire ranger to make one trip a week through the limits to check for fire, spending the rest of the time in close proximity to the limits, keeping watch for smoke. They worked from the ground, with no watchtowers in the region during the nineteenth century. The contracts were usually short term and were flexible to ensure that the rangers would be at work during dry spells, but not when there was little prospect of fire. In 1891 Boyd had his rangers working by May 18 on account of dry weather, but the following wet spring had none by mid June. In the hot and droughty season of 1895, there were so many rangers employed that the provincial government ran out of approved funds to pay their share.

These rangers checked most fires. Their first priority was usually to protect improvements like dams, slides and useful camps. With hired men helping him, Joseph Hadley fought a fire in Glamorgan and Monmouth from mid-June to mid-July 1891. In August 1894, William Creswell limited the damage to Boyd’s last good stand of timber near Bark Lake in Glamorgan. Then he watched three separate fires—one that started on the east side of Bark Lake, where they had a dump of logs from the last season. Another was east of the Buckhorn Road, and a third coming in from the west. By the time Creswell found the fire it had ruined the log dump. To save Boyd’s timber and improvements in the area, he mobilized all the men he could, and fought through the night of August 28 to stop the fire from getting into a block of timber. Having contained the blaze for eleven days, a rain on September 4 suppressed it. In 1895, one Boyd ranger spent three days putting out a fire in his limits, which originated with a campfire, while John Maxwell put out two small fires. But some fires were too hot, in seasons too dry to be controlled, as in the 1887 Snowdon and Glamorgan fire—Boyd’s renowned bush superintendent Norman Barnhart said, even “if the British army was there they could not stop it without rain.”

However, in reality, this system depended on the interest of these firms in the limits. Once big firms abandoned an area, it was vulnerable to fire, as happened to much of the Upper Trent Watershed in the early twentieth century. The Great Fire of 1913 tore through 175,840 acres, including parts of Anstruther, Burleigh, Cavendish, Glamorgan, Harvey, Monmouth, Methuen, Snowden, Dysart, Lutterworth, Anson, Cardiff, Guilford, Stanhope and Eyre townships—once among the finest pineries tributary to the Trent. This fire burned a substantial acreage in other watersheds as well. Communities could do little but flee, leaving their homes to such conflagrations, though crews were assigned to protect the bridges. By comparison, the 1948 Chapleau-Mississagi Fire consumed 645,340 acres—being the largest recorded fire in Ontario’s history.

With the Great Fire and the Trent Watershed Survey, 1913 marked the end of an era. The rush to get out the old growth forests was over—the largest operations had ceased in the 1890s, and much of the subsequent harvest was of smaller trees and other species, producing much more varied products than the mass export of (primarily pine) lumber and timber nineteenth century—pulp and paper, wood alcohol, butter chips, barrel staves, tool handles, and in time Tinkertoys to name a few. The government became responsible for suppressing fire, and much of the pine slash that had been created in the late nineteenth century had burned. So the fire ecology of the forests changed once again, and since 1913, these terrifying blazes, running through many townships in the Kawarthas, producing so much smoke that even many miles away, ships on Sturgeon Lake could not see shore, are thankfully a thing of the past. The Great Fires were just a brief, and exceptional period in the history of how fire has shaped the Kawarthas.

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