FireSmart Questions and Facts:
Ontario is more than one million square kilometres in size, of which 85 per cent is covered by a variety of forest types. Fire has always been, and will continue to be, a significant and natural phenomenon in Ontario’s forests. The Boreal Forest environment is a fire-dependant ecosystem. Fire itself is neither friend nor foe and only becomes good or bad as it relates to human values.
Throughout history, lightning-caused fires burned unchecked until halted by natural barriers, lack of fuel, or changes in weather. The presence of fire over the years has created a healthy forest mosaic of species and age classes which is essential for maintenance of this renewable resource.
Forest fires posed little problem to nomadic tribes who often used fire to clear land, encourage growth of berry plants, and to herd animals. Early settlers used fire to clear land, sometimes with disastrous results. The early 1900’s was marked by a number of fires started by settlers clearing land for agricultural use.
In 1910, on the Ontario-Minnesota border, a forest fire in the Baudette-Rainy River area killed 42 people and burned 125,000 hectares.
The next year, the infamous Porcupine fire, one of the largest in Ontario’s history, burned 200,000 hectares, including the towns of Timmins, South Porcupine, Porquis Junction and Cochrane. The estimated death toll was 73.
In 1916, a fire in the Matheson area burned the villages of Kelso, Val Gagne, Porquis Junction and Iroquois Falls, taking 244 lives.
The Haileybury fire in 1922 killed 43 and destroyed 6,000 homes.
On October 10th, 1938, land clearing fires in the Dance Township 20 kilometers North West of the Town of Fort Frances grew out of control due to drought conditions, advancing winds, and unseasonably warm fall temperatures. The fire burned 74,049 acres of valuable timber, residences and businesses, and took the lives of 17 people, mostly young families. Another 18 people required medical attention for burns and eye injuries from ash.
Development of Fire Protection
The government became concerned with forest fires as early as 1849. In 1878, the province enacted its first forest fire legislation, setting up fire districts and regulating burning during hazardous periods.
Ontario first approached forest fire management in an organised fashion with the appointment of forest fire rangers in 1885. Jointly funded by the government and the forest industry, these rangers patrolled large forest areas during the burning season, putting out fires they encountered and warning forest workers and landowners of the dangers of careless use of fire.
Spurred into action by the Matheson disaster, the Ontario government passed the Forest Fires Prevention Act in 1917, which marked the birth of a modern fire control system.
A permanent field fire organisation was created and equipped with newly developed mechanised equipment. A network of fire detection towers, ranger stations and equipment warehouses was created across the forest areas of the province and linked by radio/telephone.
In 1924 the government established the Ontario Provincial Air Service, using aircraft for forest inventory, fire detection and to transport fire crews and equipment. Aerial waterbombing trials were started as early as 1944 with success being achieved in 1957.
While aircraft development has greatly aided fire management efforts over the years, major advancements were being made by the fire organisation and by private industry in the design of fire suppression equipment. Most notable changes were to pumps and hose, communications equipment and to transportation – the helicopter.
More recently, fire managers have concentrated on being able to predict fire occurrence, behaviour and location. The Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System, comprised of the forest fire weather index and fire behaviour prediction systems, allows fire managers to do that, and more.
In keeping pace with technological developments in aircraft, suppression equipment, training, fire prediction systems, and more recently, computer modelling, Ontario’s forest fire management organisation has also evolved. In recent years there have been major changes to the fire crew system; reinforcing the crucial importance of effective initial attack. And the management structure itself has changed from a multi-regional network to a two region organisation, backed by a provincial response centre.
Increased emphasis on private sector partnerships in the areas of training and providing supplementary fire crews means a more efficient and effective fire crew system.
Ontario’s forest fire management program will continue to change in its quest for excellence, and in recognising that adaptation, ingenuity and knowledge have combined to give Ontario a world-wide reputation in forest fire management leadership.
Other interesting historical background: