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Bonavista North Fire of 1961

 

It is a trite saying that all big fires grow from little ones, and the whole objective of this Division is: when they start, get them out while they are still little. However, in the event of a major conflagration, which could very quickly be classed as a national emergency, and against which it is devotedly to be hoped we shall never have to contend, but if such misfortune strikes, the full weight of the organization, which is already alerted, moves into action.”

~By: D. Lockwood. Forester, Eastern Region

                                                                    1959

 

Near the end of the unusually hot, dry summer of 1961 a massive forest fire raged around Carmanville, with dramatic consequences.

 

The “Bonavista North Fire” had been burning for many weeks by the time it reached this community. It began June 12 near Traverse Brook-though no one is completely sure how. The cause may have been a campfire left smoldering by men fishing the stream, or a casually tossed cigarette.

 

Whatever its accidental source, the blaze soon built to a conflagration that leaped and sourced its ways across the peninsula all summer. In September, when the last of the flames and hot spots were finally put out, 2,082 km2 (804 square miles) had burned, and 16 communities all along the coast had been evacuated.

 

No human lives were lost, but many were completely disrupted-some for the summer, some forever. Some people lost their homes and belongings, and all who had traditionally made their livings from the forest began putting their lives back together in new ways.

 

The toll on wildlife was not measured, but it was known to be heavy.

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t the only fire…

 

The hot and dry conditions contributed to several other fires in the province during the summer of 1961. More than one million acres of forest were destroyed that year.

 

Six major fires (including the Bonavista North fire) accounted for 97% of the area burned. All of them took place in regions that were experiencing droughts.

 

 

Snapshot: 1968


“Productive forest lands cover about 24% of the land areas of Newfoundland and Labrador. On the island itself there are 8.4 million productive acres supporting an important pulp and paper industry and a number of sawmills. It has been estimated that 30% to 50% of the Island’s economy depends directly or indirectly on forest product’s and thus, forest fire damage is a matter of great concern to industry and government alike”

Department of Transport, Meteorological Branch

By: I.M.Stewart, 1968

 

 

Fire by numbers…

 

In Carmanville alone, the forest service equipment distribution included 27 pumps, 42,000 feet of hose, and 81 back tanks. Estimates say 800 people were evacuated from the community , as well as 200 from Ladle Cove and 170 from Aspen Cove.

 

“The biggest disaster activity recorded in the [Red Cross] Annual Report for 1961 was the establishment of food and first-aid stations in Newfoundland during the 107 days of forest fire, which involved 13,000 residents in 37 communities. In addition, immediate emergency relief was made available from coast to coast to smaller groups and individual families who had encountered disaster, usually in the form of fire”.

~The Royal Bank of Canada Monthly Letter

 

“At times there were men in the woods fighting the fire, and the fire would catch up on them, so to save their lives they’d had to get in the river. There was one crowd that got down in a pool in Ragged Harbour River, down near Musgrave Harbour. When the fire got to the edge of the river they’d get in under the water until the fire passed over them or until the fire jumped the river”

~Clarence West, age 73

                                2006

 

There was so much smoke, you couldn’t even see the gate in front of the house. I remember we were all in the front room because it was hot enough upstairs to take the life out of you”

~Melcie West, age 80

                            2006

 

Some men were designated to go in the woods to fight the fire, and others stayed spraying down their homes. One family (the Cuffs) had no other choice but to leave. They lived right back in wooded area. Their house was right in the path of the fire. I remember them bringing all their belongings out to the bank, near the shore, leaving them there to pick up after the fire was over.”

~Fred Green, age 57

                           2006

 

“ The fire ended sometime around the 26th or 27th of August, but it was still simmering in areas. That’s when they brought in the Canadian Army and their water bombers. The soldiers were battling the hot spots for a long, long time, continuing in September”

~Roland Abbott, age 93

                                 2006

 

“My personal family, my father and mother, who were considered elderly, went to Lewisporte with my brother….

The women, children, and elders went wherever they could.

Some were evacuated to Lewisporte, some to Seldom [Fogo Island], wherever they could go to escape the fire. Some families went out on the islands.”

~Roland Abbott, age 93

                                 2006

 

“I remember being all alone in the night time and all you could see was fire on the hills over on south side. I remember laying on the floor in the living room and through the window you’d see the whole harbour light up, when the fire would flare up…and then she’d die down again-I’ll never forget that!”

~Clarence West, age 73

                                2006

 

 

Equipment used to Battle the Fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More on The Fire of 1961

By Marina Starkes

 

On June 12th, 1961, a fire started somewhere between Hare Bay and Gambo in an area called Traverse Brook. It swept through most of Bonavista North, leaving behind destruction and despair. Three months later it was brought under control in Carmanville, Bonavista Bay. The cause of the fire was listed as 'careless smokers'.

 

The estimated volume of wood burnt was in the area of three million cords valued at approximately $12 million, many homes and businesses were destroyed and there was no way of estimating the numbers of wildlife that died. The actual cost of fighting the fire was listed as $86,914 but if a value was put on free services such as military aircraft and personnel and local volunteers the cost could easily have doubled.

 

There were 18 settlements affected by the fire. The communities that suffered the most were Hare Bay (12 homes, one garage and one workshop burned), Brookfield (three homes, one general store and one furniture store burned), and Carmanville (12 homes burned).

 

Residents were evacuated as the fire reached each community along the coast. Some went by car to the neighboring community, others went by boat, while others gathered in the Northern Ranger (a large ship that followed the fire and stationed itself in each harbor according). Many lives were disrupted and changed forever. The memory of that summer will never leave the minds of those touched by the fire.

 

Gary Collins of Hare Bay is a saw mill operator working in the Traverse Brook area. He remembers the day the fire started. It was a beautiful, hot summer day and he was in school doing grade eight exams. The students noticed the teacher's concerned glances toward the window.

 

Soon all the teachers gathered in the hallway and began to talk under their breath. Finally one of the students got up from his seat and looked out the window. Then everyone looked out and saw smoke towering up just over the ridge.

 

If the wind breezed up, the fire would spread quickly and the school would be in its line of fire. The school board decided not to take any chances. School was closed without finishing exams and stayed closed for the rest of the school year. Later that day the wind did breeze and the rest is history.

 

Gary said there was a lot of activity in the town before very long. Fire trucks, Mounties and all the residents were out and about. They gathered on what is called Wells' Hill.

 

The fire was brought under control in Hare Bay (as they thought). It swept on down towards Indian Bay; all the firefighters and equipment went with it. Meanwhile, a few hot spots had broken out in the upper end of town and another, more serious fire was started.

 

Because most of the men and equipment were gone, the second fire couldn't be controlled as easily, 12 homes, one garage and one workshop were burnt to the ground. It's Gary's opinion that the second fire caused most of the environmental damage.

 

With Davis's Garage destroyed, Gary's parents, Theophilus and Sarah Collins owned the only gas pumps in town. By 12:00 p.m. almost all the people had been evacuated, but with his father fighting the fire Gary had to stay and help his mother pump gas. He said although at times things became very hectic, he never saw his mother lose her cool.

 

Sarah said, "I never felt scared because we could see the fire from the house, plus, the job had to be done." At times the smoke was thick and choking but she also knew there was a large bog between her and the fire.

 

One lady was so distraught that she asked Sarah to pump all the gas from the underground tanks and dump it in the bay so the gas pumps wouldn't explode.

 

Gary said the flames' on the horizon were a spectacular sight. Smoke and heat had a magnifying effect on the bright orange and yellow colors. The whole sky was a haze of smoke, heat and ash. It looked strange and unreal but very beautiful.

 

He remembers one night going with a crowd of people to Hare Bay Island and watching everything from a distance; it’s a sight that will be printed in his memory forever. He said some of the older people were scared, but as a teenager he and his friends saw it as an adventure.

 

Eighty-nine year old Mildred Vivian remembers the fire well. There were times when it was only five or six hundred yards from her home. Davis' Garage had caught fire and the acetylene tanks had exploded. There were flankers and burning debris flying everywhere. By now, other houses in the area were burning. She and her husband Charlie wouldn't leave their home. Charlie stayed up on the roof of their house with the water hose and kept the house from burning. She stayed inside and cooked meals for the firefighters. After the immediate danger was over she could look across the road and see the blazing fire as it made its way down over the country. She said it was a pretty scary thing to go through.

 

Mildred's daughter-in-law, Eliza said since many people worked in the lumber woods the only thing to do after the fire was to leave the area to look for work. A lot of people moved to the mainland. Some people came back home after a couple years but others stayed much longer. She and husband only recently came back home to retire.

 

Theophilus Collins said while there were thousands of jobs lost, out of the fire came the blueberry industry. Within three years there were enough blueberries for every man, woman and child to pick for years to come.

 

He started a blueberry business and employed agents from Glovertown and on down the shore to Carmanville. A twenty-five acre blueberry farm was built as well as hundreds of blueberry trails. It created employment for many people. In the years between 1964 and 1979 he paid out almost two million dollars to people of the area for blueberries.

 

Louis Collins was working in Square Pond when the fire started; everybody left work to fight the fire. He said during the night Mounties went door to door to make sure everyone was evacuated.

 

Some people went to neighboring communities by car and told stories of driving through roads that were surrounded by fire and smoke. One lady was due to have her baby and had to be air-lifted to the hospital.

 

Another woman remembers the panic of rushing to the government wharf where the Northern Ranger was standing by to take people to safety; she was the last one to get in a crowded car, the car door wasn't properly closed and she fell out, losing a shoe and scraping her hand.

 

A water pump was set up in Wiseman's Cove but it wasn't strong enough to carry the water to the fire. A speed boat was placed at a half-way point to be used as a holding tank. Water was then relayed to the fire by water hoses.

 

Louis remembers one incident when he was hosing down Pearce Saunders' house. There was fire everywhere, it was so hot that his eyebrows had burned to the skin, he looked around and realized he was by himself. All of a sudden the water hose went dry; he couldn't figure out what had happened.

 

He went back to the command post and found the hose had been cut. Someone had been trying to save his own house from the flames and had cut the hose to use himself. This man hadn't realized the consequences of doing such a thing.

 

The fire spread towards Indian Bay, leaving destruction in its wake. As each community in between became exposed to danger they were evacuated.

 

Seventy-eight year old Leah Ackerman of Wareham remembers the panic everyone was in. One night a group of people went up to Centerville to see what was happening. Fire flankers blew in under one particular house and they watched as it started to burn. The Army was there and put the fire out.

 

The Army was stationed at Camp 12 in Number One Pond. She said the Orange Lodge was set up to give the men meals. Some of the fire-fighters were paid, but others were volunteers.

 

Many people had re-located from Fair Island and Silver Fox Island in 1961. Leah said there were a couple of houses being floated up the bay at the time of the fire and the owners kept them moored off rather than bring them ashore. They even stayed in them when the fire was at its worst.

 

Leah's daughter was only four years old but she remembers her uncle Fred using a tractor to pile gravel up around their house to prevent the fire from coming further.

 

Leah said a lot of people were evacuated to Valleyfield. She was scrubbing clothes on a board in the porch when they were down to Valleyfield and flankers from the fire came in through the doorway. When the fire was in full swing down there, they went back to Wareham.

 

Florence and Jack Wicks of Wareham were about to be married when the fire reached their town. As they were going into the church, they could see the smoke and flames about 10 miles away. All the women and children were taken on board the Northern Ranger which was stationed by the wharf. All the arrangements were made with Reverend Cluett who had to come from Greenspond so they decided to go ahead with the ceremony. Florence said the only woman at her wedding was Caroline Culter.

 

As soon as they were married Jack left to fight the fire. They kept the reception going for two nights because the men came back to rest and eat their meals.

 

A.G. Pickett said the fire was so close to his general store - only fifty feet away - that the outside toilet burned to the ground. The Mounties asked him if he had insurance on his store. When he said yes, they took the hose from his place and used it to work on Skipper Percy Pickett's house because it was in danger. Neither his store nor Skipper Pickett's house burned.

 

A.G. said he and his family wouldn't leave the store until the smoke drove them out. When they finally decided to leave they were only able to drive the car a few hundred feet up the road before the smoke blocked off their view completely. They had to stay in the car for hours.

 

He said time seemed to drag forever. They could see flankers all around and the fear of a gas leak was always in his and his wife's mind. The children had fallen asleep and didn't realize the danger. When the wind breezed up and the smoke lifted they felt they were out of danger so they went back home.

 

Eventually things got back to normal. Throughout his lifetime A.G. has operated many businesses but the one he remembers well is the blueberry processing business. In 1972 he went to a Nova Scotia Agricultural College and successfully completed two blueberry processing courses. From there his business boomed.

 

The fire continued on down the shore leaving many people devastated in the small towns. If time and space allowed there could be hundreds of harrowing experiences told. When it was finally over everybody picked up the pieces and life returned to normal.