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Wednesday, May 18, 2011
North sky turned a reddish orange at night while engine stood ready at station with 'steam up' as Chapleau prepared for 1948 forest fire evacuation
Following up on the fires that have devastated the town of Slave Lake, Alberta, the Canadian Press carried a story this week on the worst forest fires in Canadian history. Included was the fire commonly called the Mississagi fire of 1948 but as Bill McLeod points out in his book 'The Chapleau Game Preserve: History, Murder and Other Tales', there were actually three fires - Mississagi, South Chapleau and Panet, the latter posing the worst threat to Chapleau.
Canadian Press says that the worst forest fire in Ontario history was the Matheson fire of 1916 in which 244 people were killed.
After reading the Canadian Press story, I googled for more information on the 1948 fires, and came across a feature story from the August 1961 edition of 'Boys' Life'. the publication of the American Boy Scouts. My intention was to simpy use it as the basis for this piece, but after a few reads, realized that much of it was creative non fiction, written by someone who obviously had never visited the area, and was done for an audience of American Boy Scouts.
However, it is a good read and I do refer to some of the article here. I also went to Bill's book for information, and so here we are some 63 years later, on the Victoria Day weekend, being celebrated close to the 24th this year, with a look back to the fires that had an enormous long term impact on Chapleau and area.
Bill McLeod notes that the Mississagi fire was first detected at one p.m. near Rocky Island Lake on May 25, and by the time the first 69 firefighters arrived a day later it had grown to 2,000 acres in size. By May 27, it had jumped the Mississagi River at three points and was being fought by 137 firefighters.
Meanwhile, the South Chapleau fire had started near Flame Lake in Township 8D, and by June 1 had increased to 30,000 acres and was only 12 miles north of Mississagi.
Reflecting all these years later on these two fires stretching roughly along present Highway 129, which at the time, was not completed between Chapleau and Thessalon, Chapleau was threatened as Flame Lake is at Mileage 47, and the fires were eventually joined
However, the danger to the community was to increase even more when a new fire started in Panet Township on June 4, immediately north of the original village of Chapleau.
While the Mississagi, South Chapleau and other fires continued, by June 9, the Panet fire was within four miles of Chapleau.
Reeve B.W. 'Bubs' Zufelt told the Sudbury Star that all of the community's firefighting equipment had been tested and was at the ready. Hoses had been attached to every fire hydrant in town, Bill McLeod wrote, adding, "At night, Chapleau residents watched nervously as the north sky turned a reddish orange".
As an historic footnote, Mr. Zufelt was in his first year as Chapleau reeve in 1948 when faced with the possibility of ordering an evacuation. So was T.C. 'Terry' Way-White in 1967. Mr Zufelt did not have have to order it, but Mr. Way-White did.
If an evacuation was necessary empty boxcars were on hand at the CPR station. Keep in mind that in 1948, the CPR was really the only way in and out of Chapleau, and South Chapleau was near Sultan and Nemegos, near the railway line heading east, while the Panet fire was near it going west. The people of Chapleau were faced with a potentially very dangerous situation.
The Chapleau Fire Precaution Group was formed with Arthur Grout as chairman and Fire Chief George Collinson as vice chairman. Four wardens, Adam Andrews, Jim Broomhead, Borden McLeod and Albert Evans, with responsibility for specfic responsibility for sections of town were appointed.
Describing the precautions being taken at Chapleau, the writer of the 'Boys' Life' article says that "the engine stood on a railway siding with steam up, and cars attached."
At one point during the fires, the Ontario government considered seeding the clouds with dry ice and it was undertaken. The 'Boys' Life' article says, "the rain fell, sixty miles away from the fire where it rained out a baseball game". Bill McLeod wrote that shortly after "a drenching downpour partly extinguished a fire near the Swayze River".
Then the rains finally came to Northern Ontario and by June 28, the fires were essentially out, and in their aftermath came a whole new chapter in the history of the Chapleau area with the completion of Highway 129 in 1949, the arrival of new lumber companies, and many other changes in the life and times of this part of Northern Ontario. All stories for another day.
As a sidebar, Doug Greig, who is always so helpful when it comes to providing information, sent me a newspaper clipping announcing that the Ontario Provincial Police had established a detachment at Flame Lake after the fire. Const. D.G Patterson who had served in the RCAF in World War II was the officer posted there. Three lumber mills were in operation undertaking salvage operations. Previously, the one OPP officer from Chapleau had Flame Lake as part of his patrol area.
Thanks to Doug Greig and Bill McLeod and 'Boys' Life' magazine. Happy Victoria Day to all. My email is email@example.com