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#Canada150: The deadliest fire in Canada’s history was in Northern Ontario

In 1916, the fire pounced on Matheson ‘like a tiger’

The flames rolled into Matheson and the surrounding areas without warning. As the smoke choked the streets, men and women blindly attempted to fumble their way to safety. Some were lucky enough to find refuge. Others were not so fortunate. 

One story claims 16 people sought shelter in a root cellar, only to suffocate to death while the blaze wreaked havoc above them. Another account from survivors says 25 people took cover in a barn; none of them made it out alive.

Then, as quickly as it came, the fire dissipated. Although the fire’s grip might have been fleeting, its devastation was horrific. Whole towns were razed, hundreds were rendered homeless, and 224 people died. It was, and still remains, the deadliest fire in Canadian history (a New Brunswick fire in 1825 killed more people, but occurred nearly 50 years before Confederation).

It all began when a serious, but containable fire started in Cochrane on July 29, 1916, when settlers were burning debris from forestry operations. While this caused relatively minor devastation in the area, another fire had also ignited in Matheson with far graver consequences. 

According to the Globe, “the fire pounced on Matheson like a tiger.”

More than a century later, it’s still unclear what caused the fire in the Matheson area. It may have been the result of burning slash, as was the case in Cochrane, but another theory posits the Ontario Northland Railway was the culprit. Some believe as the railway pushed into the area with new track, it used dynamite and fire to clear the land. Normally a common practice, but during the hot, dry summer of 1916, it wouldn’t have taken much for things to go terribly awry.

It also would not have been the first time a railway caused a fire. As trains steamed into Northern Ontario’s wilderness, they brought economic growth, but also destruction. By the early 1900s, railways were mandated to affix spark arrestors to their locomotives in order to mitigate a catalytic process that had the potential to set the woodlands ablaze. Moreover, the Ontario government also amended its nascent Fire Act in order to appoint fire rangers on railways to both prevent the outbreak of and report on existing fires. 

Although these measures reduced the likelihood of train-caused fires, they were not infallible.

Regardless of what caused the fire, its devastation was unparalleled in Canadian history. Bill Fairburn, a prospector from the area, gave the Globe a detailed, harrowing account of what happened. 

“It came, sped by a howling tornado, a living wave of flame, travelling at 60 miles an hour, and nothing lived in its wake. Matheson was in flames in a few minutes. I rushed all the women and children I could find to a freight train on a siding and sent them out as fast as I could. Others went down to Black River and stayed there. In Matheson itself, no one was lost, but the slaughter was terrible in outside districts.”

The towns of Matheson and Iroquois Falls were completely destroyed and Nushka was reduced to ash. A tiny community, Nushka had a population of 300, but only eight people were accounted for when the flames subsided. When it was rebuilt, it was renamed Val Gagne, in honour of Father Wilfrid Gagne, who perished while rescuing his congregation from the encroaching flames.

Despite the danger, stories about acts of heroism, such as the priest’s ultimate sacrifice, were prevalent. Duncan Graham managed to protect his wife and child from the inferno by placing them in a trench and covering them with a blanket. As he huddled over top of them, he kept the blanket wet against the onslaught of the heat. By the time the fire had swept over his family, Graham clothes were practically burnt off and his face and body were severely scorched. His wife and child, however, were unscathed.

In the wake of the destruction, the government responded quickly, making forest fire protection one of its policy priorities. 

According to Dr. Mark Kuhlberg, a Canadian historian at Laurentian University, the government was at a cross roads. 

“On the one hand, your major policy thrust is to settle the north, but on the other, you’ve got this catastrophic fire that you need to address in a seemingly effective way and take concrete action,” he said. 

In less than a year, Ontario had passed a landmark piece of legislation, the Forest Fires and Prevention Act, in 1917. It provided for the appointment of a provincial forester to administer and oversee the implementation of the act. E.J. Zavitz, who previously served as the director of forestry for the Department of Lands and Forests, was given this promotion. 

As his first order of business, Zavitz seconded J.H. White from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry and appointed him as his chief assistant. White succeeded in creating protection districts, which were to be supervised by a chief ranger with the assistance of one or more deputy chiefs.

The province also introduced practical measures to its fire protection system, the most noteworthy being the erection of a network of fire watchtowers. This reflected the realization that, in the case of the Matheson fire, early detection would have undoubtedly reduced the number of human casualties. In addition, the province also added 1,000 rangers to patrol Ontario’s forests. 

For Kuhlberg, “the legislation that was passed gave the province’s forestry service a more prominent presence on the ground and in the field, in order to prevent such tragedies from recurring.”

Despite the important regulatory changes made in the wake of the Matheson fire, Ontario’s forests were not invulnerable from significant conflagrations. In 1922, human carelessness and nature coalesced, once again, when the town of Haileybury burned for the third time since its incorporation in 1904. 

This time, as settlers set fires to clear brush, winds rolled over the landscape, picking up embers that set the town ablaze. The inferno killed 43 people and scorched 414,720 acres of woodlands.

Although this was Ontario’s last big killer fire, the province experienced an even larger inferno in 1948. 

That May, separate forest fires started in the Mississagi River Valley and the Chapleau area. Both fires spread rapidly, and with the DLF unable to wrangle the blazes, they eventually joined. By mid-June, towns such as Chapleau were in jeopardy. The provincial government had already begun taking precautionary measures in case the town and its 2,800 inhabitants had to be evacuated. 

Boxcars were stationed at the Chapleau railway station and a skeleton firefighting crew was assembly as a last-ditch effort in case the flames threatened to overrun them. Its mayor, Bert W. Zufelt, had ordered that fire hoses be laid out near all the fire hydrants should the town reach its eleventh hour. Somehow, the fire changed direction and Chapleau avoided catastrophe. 

When the flames were finally extinguished in August, after burning for nearly three months, the Mississagi-Chapleau fire had torched 747,520 acres, the most in provincial history. 

This year, forest fire season in Ontario has been off to a slow start, largely due to the wet weather that kicked off the summer. The same, however, cannot be said for British Columbia. 

Currently, 154 wildfires are burning across the province with some are calling it the worst and most expensive season in recent memory. According to the Globe and Mail, “more than $125-million has been spent fighting fires that have burned almost 370,000 hectares.” 

To put that in perspective, in square kilometers, that’s more than half the size of Prince Edward Island. 

Although thousands of evacuees are now returning to their homes in parts of British Columbia, the situation remains very unpredictable. At the moment, more than 300 firefighters from Ontario have already headed west to help their provincial colleagues attempt to get a handle on the situation. 

In an effort to get a handle on the situation, there has even been talk of deploying a controversial method known as cloud seeding, where chemicals such as silver iodide are dropped from the sky in order to create precipitation. It’s not a new technique. When the Ontario government attempted to suppress the Mississagi-Chapleau fire in 1948, it experimented in inducing rain by dropping dry ice payloads into the clouds, but it did not bring a deluge of relief. 

It’s believed the advancements made to this strategy may have helped battle the blaze in Fort McMurray last year, but it’s still largely unproven.

Despite the tremendous advancements that have been made in forest fire suppression since the days of the Matheson fire, these systems are still at the mercy of the weather. Even with boots on ground and aerial water bombing from above, natural conditions chiefly dictate the outcome of these fires. With no rain expected in the forecast for the affected areas in British Columbia any time soon, and lightning and strong winds causing flare ups, even the most valiant firefighting may have little impact on turning the tide.

With the onset of climate change, the grim reality is our forest fire seasons will only continue to get longer. Although humans may be unable to completely prevent and suppress forest fires, we have a role to play in mitigating the situation. In Ontario, the government recently increased the maximum fines for individuals and corporations responsible for starting forest fires. With 

British Columbia still burning, the anniversary of the Matheson conflagration, is a poignant reminder of the awesome power of nature and how it rarely bends to our whims.

More #Canada150 moments from this month

July 11, 1990: An armed standoff between police and Kanesatake Mohawks begins after the town of Oka attempts to extend a golf course over disputed lands. During the course of the 78-day standoff, tensions run high, especially following the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay. After the conflict dissipates, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) is tabled in order to examine the economic, social and cultural plight of Indigenous persons in Canada in the hopes of finding redress.

July 14, 1976: The death penalty is abolished in Canada. The last person executed in the Sudbury jail was Bruce Ducsharm, on June 15, 1956.

July 15, 1870: Following Louis Riel’s resistance to the Canadian government’s expansion into Red River, the province of Manitoba is created with the passage of the Manitoba Act. The legislation carves out 35,000 square kilometers around the Red River settlement and Portage la Prairie, a postage stamp compared to the current size of Manitoba.

July 20, 1871: British Columbia joins Confederation. As part of its entry, Canada’s newest province is promised that the federal government will assume its debt, undertake a public-works program, pay an annual subsidy, and, more importantly, link the province to the rest of the country by railway.

July 22, 1940: This famous gameshow host from Sudbury celebrates a birthday on this day. Who is Alex Trebek?

July 23, 1914: After docking in Vancouver’s harbor on May 23, the SS Komagata Maru is forced to raise anchor and return to Asia. The Punjabi passengers had attempted to challenge Canada’s exclusionary immigration policies, chiefly the continuous passage regulation, but were unsuccessful. In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the incident in the House of Commons, finally acknowledging the government’s role in this dark moment in Canada’s immigration history.

In honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial this year,, with the help of our resident historian Dr. Mike Commito, is going back to the archives each month throughout 2017 to highlight some important memories and events in our nation’s history. We hope to provide you with some interesting stories about our past as we collectively celebrate, and analyze, what #Canada150 means.


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